Saturday, 14 June 2014

Condemn - Forcefully Damn It!

Photo by Fabian


Verb transitive. Middle English.
[Old French condem(p)ner (modern condamner) from Latin condem(p)nare, formed CON- + DAMN verb.]

1 Give judgement against, convict;
 sentence to punishment, to be punished;
 especially sentence to death. ME

2 Pronounce an adverse judgement on;
 express strong disapproval of;
 censure, blame; reject.
Of words, looks, actions, etc.: incur or bring about condemnation of. LME

3(a) Consign to perdition; damn. LME

3(b) Force into or limit to an unwelcome or unpleasant action or state; 
especially in passive, be doomed to some condition or to do something. M17

4 Pronounce guilty of (a crime, fault, etc.). archaic. M16

5 Close permanently, block up (a door, window). M16

6 Pronounce (smuggled good, prizes of war, etc.) legally forfeited. E18

7(a) Pronounce officially to be unfit for use, consumption, or habitation. E18

7(b) Pronounce judicially (land etc.) as converted or convertible to public use. US. M19

8 Pronounce incurable. M19

Condemn is constructed from con- (expressing intensive force) and damn which, considering that damn was most definitely a proscribed word when I was a child, makes it seem that condemn is a rather nasty word too. After all, as if damning something isn't bad enough, how much worse is forcefully and intensively damning something? (though, when we're talking fire and brimstone and eternal torment, it's hard to imagine how you could unforcefully damn someone).

However, while condemn does have some undoubtedly grim associations - think of a man condemned to death, for example - it's never been as associated with theological damnation as damn. In fact, the demn (damn) part of it doesn't specifically refer to fiery torment at all, but derives from the Old French condemner, which means to convict, to blame, to injure. And even damn itself was somewhat more benign in the beginning - popping up in the 13th century, it originally meant pretty much exactly the same as condemner, and only acquired its fiery theological sense in the 14th century, a meaning that would put it well and truly into the realm of the taboo until the 20th century.

Still, the connection between condemn and damn is an interesting one, as are the various uses of condemn. You could, for example, condemn a doorway in the 16th century by permanently blocking it up, and in the United States a piece of land could be condemned to public use which, in whichever sense the damn part is taken, seems a bizarre reflection on attitudes toward that damnable public.

A notice of condemnation nailed to a tree infection with Dutch Elm disease
If trees aren't safe from condemnation, what is?
(photo by Karl Frankowski)
Do please leave your most condemnatory comments in the comment box below.

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