Language Corner

Sowing cedes

November 30, 2020
A demonstrator holds a sign outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on November 6. Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news.

WHEN DONALD TRUMP allowed the transition to a Biden administration to go forward, he effectively “ceded” that he did not win the election. But he has not “conceded,” and it’s unclear whether he will “proceed” with legal challenges to the election, though it seems sure that they will not “succeed.”

All those words, along with a few others, are in the same family. They all go back to Latin, where the verb cedere means “to yield to, give way for.” That gives us “cede,” which first appeared in English in the early seventeenth century as a transitive verb to mean the same thing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The first citation in the OED includes this example, which is a twofer: “It is a great gift of God to seek God: It is second to no gift, because it is the first; It succeedeth no grace, which hath no precedent, and cedeth to none that hath the perfection of all.”)

As a transitive verb, “cede” showed up about one hundred years later to mean “To give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory,” the OED says. Merriam-Webster has a slightly different take, listing “to yield or grant typically by treaty” first in its “cede” entry, tracing it to 1743, then “assign, transfer.”

So when a sports column said that lack of revenue because of the pandemic was causing the Tampa Bay Rays to forgo some of their highest-paid players, “seemingly in the process of ceding the AL East” to the Yankees, it was saying that the Rays are both surrendering to the Yankees and yielding the division to them. In insurance, “ceding” can mean passing on risk to another insurer, which is less surrendering or yielding than it is hedging one’s own bets.

Add the prefix “con” to “cede,” and more than mere surrender is involved. “Concede,” which first showed up in English in the early sixteenth century, means “To acknowledge the truth or fairness of (a statement, claim, etc.),” according to the OED. So for the president to “concede” is to admit he lost, not to just passively allow things to move forward.

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The use of “concede” in elections is relatively new, tracing to 1824 in the United States, the OED says. In that context, it means: “To acknowledge that (an electoral contest) has been lost to another political party or candidate. Also: to admit (defeat) in an election, contest, attempt, etc.” It is not a condition of “ceding” the election. So Trump can “cede” the election without “conceding” that he lost it.

During his term, though, he did withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization; by the OED’s definition, the US “seceded” from the WHO. When “secede” first appeared, in 1702, it meant “To go away from one’s companions, go into retirement.” The OED’s second definition is “To withdraw formally from an alliance, an association, a federal union, a political or religious organization.” 

We usually think of “secede” in the context of a city or state removing itself from another. That’s what a city councilman in Charleston, South Carolina, threatened to do if property taxes were raised: have part of the city form a new town or join a nearby one. The headline on that article, “If Charleston can’t succeed without more taxes, Griffin says secede!” plays right into our words.

“Succeed” effectively comes from the same Latin root, in the form of succedere—“to go under, go up, come close after, go near,” the OED says. But that doesn’t mean “win,” does it? Not yet.

In the late fourteenth century, “succeed” as a verb meant “To come next after and take the place of another, either by descent, election, or appointment.” Chaucer used it that way in the first OED citation. So Joe Biden will “succeed” Donald Trump in the office of the presidency. About the same time, though, “succeed” also meant “To have the desired or a fortunate issue or conclusion; to turn out successfully.” So Joe Biden “succeeded” in beating Donald Trump.

“Proceed,” too, comes from that Latin root, in the form procedere. Its first usage also came in the late fourteenth century, to mean “To go or come forth from, out of, or of a material thing or place; to emanate.” It also meant “To begin and carry on an action or course of action, a piece of work, an investigation, etc.” Chaucer used it both ways in his Canterbury Tales.

So how did we get from “cede” to “ceed,” when they came from the same Latin root? As Merriam-Webster says, “-Cede words got to English from French, while -ceed words got to English from Middle English.”

We “cede” that Chaucer “succeeded” in leading that change.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.