Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
“If pro is the opposite of con,” begins the tired old joke, “then what is the opposite of progress?” The answer, of course, is a disingenuous etymological misinterpretation of a pairing that resulted from an English shortening of a Latin word. That is, the opposite of pro isn’t con, it’s contra, but English speakers dropped that last syllable.
Pro is a Latin preposition meaning, among other things, “forward, in front of, on behalf of,” but by the 15th century it had acquired, in English, the sense of “an argument or consideration in favor of” something. Contra is a Latin word meaning “against, on the opposite side of.”
So the first part of the joke doesn’t hold up: Con is the opposite of pro only because English speakers (not Latin scholars) decided they liked single-syllable comparisons. The real con- in congress (whether you’re talking about the common or proper noun) is an assimilated form of com, Latin for “with, together.”
In linguistics, assimilation is when one part of a word or word element changes in order to be more similar to the following sound — the change makes the whole phrase simpler to pronounce. In this case, com- becomes co- before a vowel (cooperate), col- before an l (collect), cor- before an r (correct), and con- before most remaining consonants.
Which leads us to the only part of this sorry excuse for a joke that holds some truth: the -gress parts of progress and congress are the same. The Latin verb gradi means “to step, to go, to walk.” Combining it with pro- “forward” yields the verb progredi “to walk forward,” which through the intricacies of conjugation produced the noun of action progressus. The word then, ahem, progressed through Old French to become the English noun progress “a (sometimes metaphorical) moving forward” in the 15th century, and later the verb to progress.
You can probably see how congress works out now: con- “with, together” + gradi “walking.” Congress breaks down to “a walking together,” though actually walking wasn’t required (much like drinking at a symposium), and so congress (and the now obsolete congression) became “a coming together, a meeting.”
However, people don’t always come together just to talk, and the uses of congress reflect that. In the early 1500s, we see the word first used to indicate the simple act of meeting, but in the 1580s, there is written evidence of the word’s use as a euphemism for sex, and in the 1600s, people began using it to indicate a battle.
The sense of a congress as large meeting for political purposes didn’t really take off until the meetings of the Continental Congress in the mid-1700s, after which the proper noun Congress was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Congress and progress aren’t the only words that trace back to walking. Here are some other related words that “gressed” into English:
- Aggression: From ad- “to,” this word for an unprovoked attack or hostility literally means “a stepping toward.”
- Digress: Using an assimilated dis- “apart, aside,” a digression is when you metaphorically walk the conversation down a different path.
- Regress: That re- “back” makes regression “a walking back”.
- Transgress: The trans- word part can mean “across” or “beyond,” which makes transgression, originally a word for “sin,” a “stepping over or beyond” — presumably the tenets of good Christianity.
- Egress: From an assimilated ex- “out,” egression is “leaving, walking out,” and an egress is an exit. Supposedly, as a way to get visitors to leave his often overcrowded traveling museum, P.T. Barnum posted signs ostensibly pointing the way to an exhibit called “The Great Egress.”
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