indict: to bring a charge against; to accuse (a person) of a crime

These [members of a Grand Jury] have just INDICATED the 45th President of the United States of America, and the leading Republican Candidate, by far, for the 2024 Nomination for President.

Donald Trump, Truth Social post, 30 March 2023

One has to assume that the former president was a victim of the Curse of Predictive Text when he replaced the word “indicted” with “indicated”, above. Certainly, of words beginning with indic-, the group related to indicate are more commonly used than the group related to indict; so predictive text software, ignorant of events in the world, might well have plumped for “indicate”.

But it’s the ending of indict that made me choose it for today’s “word in the news” post. The word-ending -ict is generally pronounced as spelled—contradict, afflict, depict, evict. But indict is different, sporting one of those silent letters that bedevil the English language. Why don’t we pronounce the “c”?

It turns out that the “c” is a relatively recent acquisition for indict, which used to be spelled endite in Middle English. It was a legal term absorbed from Norman French enditer, “to charge, accuse”. That in turn came from the Old French enditer, “to declare”. Simple etymological arguments suggest that this was in turn derived from a Latin word indictare, “to speak upon”, though there’s no example of such a word in the Classical Latin texts available to us. But then English endite was Latinized during the Middle Ages, by legal scholars who were aware of the likely etymology. So indictare was reborn in the legal Latin of the times, but with the meaning “to charge, accuse”. At which point the reconstituted Latin influenced the standard English spelling, and endite became indict, the silent “c” being a nod to its Latin origins.

This sort of thing was rife, at the time, and has created a lot of heartache for people trying to learn English spelling. The pronunciation of words like receipt, salmon and doubt come to us from their French origins (receite, saumon, douter in Norman French), and they were originally spelled receyt, samoun and doute in Middle English. But Latin scholars knew that the French words had derived from Latin receptus, salmo and dubitare. So they added the silent “p”, “l” and “b” to the English words as an act of what the OED calls “learned revision”, and the rest of us would call “showing off”.*

But this sort of “Latining up” of English sometimes served only to demonstrate ignorance. The same people who gave us receipt, salmon and doubt also stuck an “s” into Middle English ile and iland, producing isle and island, in reference to the Latin word insula. They were right about ile, which came to us from Latin through French, but wrong about iland, which originated in Old English and has a Germanic origin meaning something like “water land”—the similarity to ile was coincidental.

A host of English words originate from Latin dicere, “to speak”, including Trump’s mistyped indicate. But for this post I’m going to concentrate on those words that come to us from Latin parts of speech related to dicere, but containing the letter “t”, of which indict is a prime example.

The frequentative form of dicere is dictare, “to say often”, which in Latin took on the sense of issuing an order or command, and also of speaking so that another person could write down your words. From that we derive dictate, which can signify either the process of giving dictation or the actions of a dictator. Combined with the prefix in-, dictare is also the origin of our word indict, as described above. And it gave us the obsolete word indite, which was sometimes used to mean “give dictation”, but also to “set down in writing”, particularly if putting together a document for formal presentation. Something set down in this way was a dite.

Once dictare stopped meaning “to say often”, it was free to take on another frequentative suffix, forming dictitare, “to say repeatedly or emphatically”. That gave us the obsolete old word dictitate, meaning “declare”.

The Latin noun dictio, “saying” or “speech”, gives us diction. In Mediæval Latin a dictionarium was a collection of sayings or speeches, and is the origin of our own word dictionary.

Latin dictum had a variety of meanings, somewhat overlapping with dictio, but with a general sense of “something said”. It sits in the background of a number of English words involving speaking. To predict is to “speak before” some event; to contradict is to “speak against”; a verdict is a “true statement”; an edict is a “speaking out”. A malediction is a curse, literally a “bad statement”, while a benediction is a blessing, a “good statement”. The given name Benedict is variously interpreted as meaning “blessed” (the object of a benediction), or as “speaking good things”. A jurisdiction is a region in which the “law speaks” and a valediction is a “farewell statement”, delivered by a valedictorian. To be an addict used to mean that one was “spoken for”—that is, bound by an obligation. The trajectory to the current meaning is clear.

English has borrowed dictum directly, to indicate something said in a pithy and memorable way, and with a degree of authority. A harsher version of the same thing is a diktat, an instruction by which one imposes one’s will on others—the word is borrowed from German. Ditty, meaning “words of a song”, comes to us from Old French dité, from Latin dictatum, “thing spoken”. And in Scotland we have a legal term which has the same derivation—the “Statement of Facts” issued in the New York court, pictured at the head of this post, would be called a dittay in Scottish Law.

Finally, as is almost becoming customary, I’ll finish with a plant name: Herb Bennet, commonly known as the Wood Avens (Geum urbanum), a pretty little hedgerow flower. Its alternative name comes from the Latin herba benedicta, “blessed herb”. The fifteenth-century natural history encyclopaedia, Ortus Sanitatis, has this to say on how the humble little avens earned its name:

Where the root is in the house the devil can do nothing, and flies from it; wherefore it is blessed above all other herbs.

* I’m indebted (there’s another one!) to Arika Okrent’s entertaining and informative book, Highly Irregular (2021), for the receipt, salmon, doubt examples.
At this point I found myself wondering about the Royal Navy slang word dit, meaning “story” or “report”. But dite fell out of use round about the time the Royal Navy was formed, and there’s no mention of dit in Admiral Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book (1867)—so the theory that it has something to do with the “dit-dah” sound of Morse code is perhaps more probable.

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