prorogation: the act of discontinuing the meetings of an assembly without dissolving it

Westminster, showing separation of powers
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For present purposes, the relevant limit on the power to prorogue is this: that a decision to prorogue (or advise the monarch to prorogue) will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive.

Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court, 24 September 2019

Here in the UK we’ve recently been getting a little lesson on the importance of the Separation of Powers in a democratic state. In particular, the judiciary has just, at time of writing, intervened in the relationship between the executive and legislature (see above), thereby limiting the ability of the Government to prorogue Parliament. So the unfamiliar word prorogation has been on everyone’s lips.

The verb to prorogue comes from the Latin prefix pro- and the verb rogare, “to ask”. The meaning of prorogare in Latin was “to extend” (a term of office). In English it was used to mean both “to prolong” and “to postpone”, and as early as the fifteenth century it acquired its specific relevance to the (then) English Parliament—to discontinue meetings for a (usually brief) period. Quite how a Latin construction that should mean “asking before” or “asking on behalf of” acquired its connection to prolongation is unclear. It has been suggested that perhaps, at some period in Roman history, the extension of some period of office required specific permission to be asked for, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support that idea.

Latin rogare also gives us rogation—in Roman history, the act of submitting a proposed law to the people to ask for their approval. In the Christian calendar the Rogation Days are the three days before Ascension Day, marked by processions and prayers—the prayers being the act of “asking” for which the days are named.

So we have two associations for rogare in English—law-making and asking, and each has spawned its own list of words.

First, in the legal sense, we have the verb to abrogate means “to repeal” or “to do away with” (a law or established custom). To derogate is to abrogate in part—to diminish the force of something (originally a law, but now more generally applied). And that sense of diminishment gives us the usually meaning of derogatory—”disrespectful” or “disparaging”. To obrogate is to repeal a law, and to irrogate was an old Scottish legal term meaning “to impose” (a legal penalty). To subrogate is to replace one person with another, the original meaning having to do with legally replacing office bearers or election candidates.

When it comes to the sense of asking, we have the verb interrogate, which literally means “asking questions at intervals”, and the noun prerogative (literally “asked first”), meaning a right or privilege.* To erogate is to pay out money—the reference is to disbursing funds from the public purse after asking permission from the Roman people. To arrogate is to claim something for oneself (or about another). It has now come to be associated with false or unjustified claims, but its original meaning was “to adopt a child”. Its cousin adrogate has a specialized meaning, referring to the Roman custom of adopting adults into one’s own family.

Finally, there’s corvée, a French word that has come a long way, in terms of pronunciation, from its Latin origins in corrogare, literally “to ask together”. The Latin word referred to a sort of tax paid in labour by Roman citizens, who would do work on public structures like roads and bridges rather than pay money to the state. The word then evolved to designate the duty of unpaid labour owed by a mediaeval vassal to his feudal lord—a practice which persisted in France right up to the French Revolution. In both senses (public work in lieu of tax, or as a duty imposed by a government on its citizens) corvée labour persists in several countries today, including Myanmar, Vietnam, Rwanda and Bhutan.

There’s a certain irony embedded in the etymology of prorogation, I think, in the context of the current fuss. It seems that something for which one once had to ask permission has turned into something that can be unilaterally imposed, requiring legal intervention to undo.

* And a prerogative is how the monarchy becomes involved in the whole prorogation stramash. In the UK, prorogation is a Royal Prerogative—a power exercised by the monarch, in this case under the advice of her government. Royal Prerogative is, however, trumped by statute law—which is how the Supreme Court became involved.

4 thoughts on “Prorogation”

  1. Glad you couldn’t track down why a word meaning “to ask before ” got to it’s present meaning of proroging parliament, when it purposes to put parliament on hold . I’d wondered. Over time words do change in meaning as you’ve posted before .

    1. It’s interesting that this idea of “prolongation” was already in place when Latin was a living language, but that we don’t seem to have any record of how that usage arose.

  2. I must admit that this topic put a smile on my face when I saw the notification. A very timely piece.

    As an Australian of a certain age the interaction between Parliament, the Prime Minister & the powers of The Crown is always an interesting matter.

    1. Yes, I think the whole thing would be abstractly fascinating, if only they weren’t actually stress-testing the constitution of my native country.

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