prorogue

This word is all the rage in Canada lately. Until late 2008, it was something that happened without anyone outside of Parliament really noticing: when a legislative session was done, or when it was anyway a good time to wrap up business for it and start afresh, the queen (or king) would – or rather the governor general, the queen’s (or king’s) proxy in Canada, would – on the advice of the prime minister prorogue parliament. There would perhaps be a little wrap-up speech, and any bills not yet voted on would die and would have to be reintroduced the next session if they were to see the books.

And then Stephen Harper did it in an unexpected situation, to end a session when it had barely begun, just to avoid a vote of no confidence. Everyone suddenly had heard this word prorogue. And now, a year later, prorogation is being used not in such a dire situation but nonetheless in what had appeared to be the middle, not the end, of a legislative session. Although technically the governor general is not obliged to assent to the prime minister’s request to prorogue, it would appear that the current governor general views the decision as the prime minister’s proroguative.

This is leading some people to say Stephen Harper is a pro rogue. Not just any amateur rogue – he’s making a career of it! But prorogue is not actually related to rogue (nor to that Irish – and subsequently military – term of abuse, pogue, which, like rogue, has a French-style spelling but does not actually come by way of French). No, it comes from Latin pro, “for”, and rogare, “ask”. (You’ll see the latter root in interrogate and abrogate, for instance.)

It’s a funny word, prorogue. Certainly it sounds kind of funny; the two /r/s give it a Scooby-Doo sound, or perhaps something like an engine failing to start on a January day in Ottawa. It may seem like an altered pronunciation of prologue (as in “what’s past in prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge” – from Shakespeare’s Tempest, avec ou sans teakettle). It may seem to want to be followed with “row your boat, gently down the stream,” in a round. It has that strange double-vision of the roro (“This again?!”). It may seem like an out-of-order poor urge, or like watching an ogre pour confusion.

But beyond all that, it is also a contronym of sorts. It has a – now obsolete – meaning “make last longer” and a similar – still current – meaning “formally extend (e.g., an appointment in office)”. And yet, pretty much from the beginning of its use in English, it also has had a meaning “defer, postpone” and a related more specifically legislative meaning “discontinue meetings (for a period of time or until the next session)”. Both meanings can be in operation simultaneously on the same act with different recipients: in 2008, Harper prorogued parliament (the discontinuing sense) and in so doing prorogued his party’s term as the governing party (the lengthening sense).

So, really, what you mean when you use prorogue – “ask for” – depends on what you’re asking for. And this is one thing that brings Canadians together: they all agree that Harper’s asking for something. And they all want him to get what he’s really asking for. They simply don’t all happen to mean the same thing by this.

Thanks to Rosemary Tanner for asking for this one.

2 responses to “prorogue

  1. This post made me smile, and chuckle, and smile again.

    I particularly enjoyed the ‘proroguative’ pun, so much so that I used it as a Facebook status (and linked to you from a comment).

    • Credit where it’s due: my friend Kevin Schwartz — the same guy from whom I got the pun “sesquiotics” — made that pun in a comment on my Facebook status, and I took it from him.

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