Friday, January 12, 2018

Verbs of sitting, Part 14: Lat. sŭpersĕdēre

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Verbs of Sitting and Related Words," a chapter in Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The last of the verbs derived from a Latin sitting verb by prefixation is sŭpersĕdēre or sŭpersĭdēre. It was formed from the prefix sŭper ‘over above’ and the verb sĕdēre ‘to sit’. There are versions of this verb attested with the root sĕd‑’s two allomorphs, ‑sĕd‑ and ‑sĭd‑. Its principal parts were sŭpersĕdĕo-sŭpersĭdĕo, sŭpersĕdēre-sŭpersĭdēre, supersēdī, supersessum. This verb’s literal meaning was ‘to sit upon or above’, and, derived from it, it could also mean, ‘to preside over’, ‘ to be superior to’, and, more figuratively, ‘to abstain/refrain from doing something’. This verb has made it into English and Spanish, cf. Eng. supersede and Sp. sobreseer. The two words are not good friends, however, since their meanings differe a great deal. In the Spanish word, we can still detect the original figurative meaning, whereas the meaning of the English word had changed a great deal more.

Eng. supersede is a mid-15th century loan, originally an intransitive verb with the meaning ‘to postpone, defer (action), delay, hesitate’, from Middle French superceder or superseder, which had the same meaning, which is obviously derived from the original Latin verb’s figurative meaning. Middle French superseder was obviously a learned word, a loanword from written Latin. A common spelling error is to write this word as supercede, with a c, in English, just like it was sometimes also written in French. Most English dictionaries condone this spelling as a legitimate variant. However, there is no doubt that the verb’s origin is in the Latin word sĕdēre ‘to sit’ and not in the verb cēdĕre ‘to proceed; to yield; etc.’, source of Eng. cede and Sp. ceder (cf. Part II, Chapter 17). It is quite likely that the spelling ‘error’ is due to the semantic contrast of the verb supersede (with an etymological s) with the verb precede (with an etymological c), which are sort of antonyms, since they can be paraphrased as ‘come after (and replace)’ vs. ‘come before’ (cf. Part I, Chapter 6, §6.4.3).

Modern French superséder is archaic, however, having been replaced with a patrimonial version of the word surseoir ‘to postpone, to defer something’, a word already attested at the end of the 11th century. In the word surseoir, pronounced [syʀ.ˈswaʀ] in Modern French, we can see the Standard French patrimonial descendants of Lat. sŭper, namely sur, and of sĕdēre, namely seoir. It was originally an intransitive verb but by the beginning of the 13th century it was being used as a transitive verb, and by the 17th century it was what’s called an indirect transitive verb that requires a phrase with the preposition à ‘to’ to follow’. Modern French surseoir is a formal, literary word and, mostly a legal term today, with the meaning ‘to postpone [a ruling (décision)]’, ‘to defer [a payment (versement)]’, or ‘to stay [the enforcement of a ruling (exécution)]’ (Oxford-Hachette Concise).

The original meaning ‘postpone, defer’ of the Eng. supersede is nowadays obsolete. Over the years, this word took over new meanings, some of which are rare, if not archaic or obsolete. It was used, for instance, as a legal term much like in French later on in the 15th century with the transitive meaning ‘to postpone or suspend the effecting of, defer, put off’, and by the 17th century, it meant ‘to put a stop to (legal proceedings, etc.); to stop, stay’ (OED). That, as we shall see, is the meaning that this word’s Spanish still has today.

Also in the 17th century, the word was being used with the meaning ‘to make superfluous or unnecessary; to preclude the necessity of’ (OED) and, related to it, ‘to put another thing in the place of; to find or provide a replacement for’ (OED). And that is pretty much the main meaning that the word has today, which is namely ‘to take the place of (something discarded or discontinued); to succeed to the place occupied by; to serve, be adopted, or be accepted instead of’ and ‘to take up the office of (someone removed or (formerly) promoted); to succeed and supplant in a position’ (OED). Although today’s meaning of Eng. supersede seems very different from the original one, we can easily see the evolution between the different meanings, which went from ‘postpone’, to ‘put a stop’, to ‘put a stop because it is unnecessary’, to ‘be unnecessary because there is something else in place’, to ‘ replace’ .

The verb supersede is typically used in the passive voice, however, as to be superceded (by/with). The way the OED describes it, the two senses of this passive verb are ‘to be discarded or discontinued as useless or obsolete; to be replaced by something else. With by (a thing regarded as more advanced or superior)’ and ‘to be removed from or replaced in an office or position. With by (the successor)’.

The verb supersede translates into Spanish as reemplazar (cf. Eng. replace), substituir (cf. Eng. substitute), or suplantar (cf. Eng. supplant), or even desbancar ‘to supplant, replace, take the place of, to oust, displace, edge out’. The passive participle superseded can be translated by any of the participles of any of the mentioned verbs, sustituido, remplazado/a, suplantado/a, desbancado/a, as well as by superado/a.

Sp. sobreseer (conjugated like leer ‘to read’) is the descendant of this same Latin word, sŭpersĕdēre. It has all the looks of a patrimonial word, since instead of the Latin prefix sŭper‑, we find its patrimonial Spanish descendant sobre‑, identical to the preposition sobre ‘over, above’. Also, the other part of the word, sĕdēre, is missing the intervocalic ‑d‑, a common sound change in patrimonial words (cf. Part I, Chapter 10). It is not inconceivable, however, that this fancy word was a loan, most likely from French, one whose parts were somehow adapted to the patrimonial form of the descendants of the source words, sŭper and sĕdēre, in Spanish. Unlike most patrimonial words, Sp. sobreseer, which is already attested in the late 15th century, is not an everyday word but, rather, an uncommon legal term. Its meaning is ‘to suspend an indictment investigation and, by extension, to put an end to legal proceedings’ (DLE).[a]

There aren’t many words that are related to either Eng. supersede or Sp. sobreseer. Some dictionaries mention that the English noun that means ‘the act of superseding’ or ‘the state of being superseded’ is supersession, though the word is quite rare. Even more rare is the adjective supersessive, found in some dictionaries and formed, in English, by means of the Latinate adjectival suffix ‑ive, which means ‘having the quality or character of supersession; taking the place of something or someone displaced’ (OED). The word is formed according to the Latin pattern in which the adjective-forming suffix ‑īv‑ attaches itself to the passive participle stem of verbs, in this case supersess‑. The OED also mentions the rare noun supersessor, which has been used in English several times since 19th century and means ‘a person who or thing which supersedes another’ (OED). This noun was also formed in English with the Latinate agent suffix ‑or, a descendant of Lat. ‑ōr‑, which also attached itself to passive participle stems. This word is a synonym of the word superseder, formed also in English, from the verb supersede by means of the English agent suffix ‑er.

Finally, the name for the act of sobreseer in Spanish is sobreseimiento, a word derived, in Spanish, from the verb and the suffix ‑miento that creates nouns out of verbs. It translates as dismissal or stay of proceedings. There is no other word related to this verb in Spanish.





[a] The original says: ‘Cesar en una instrucción sumarial y, por extensión, dejar sin curso ulterior un procedimiento’ (DLE).

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