The sound of this word makes me think of Yosemite Sam. Can’t you just hear a hoarse voice with a southwestern American accent coughing it out through a bushy moustache? “Get mah hoss! Round up a posse! Someone stole mah hossenfeffa!” (Side note for the millions who have seen the “hossenfeffer” cartoon: it’s a German word spelled Hasenpfeffer and meaning “rabbit pepper”.)
Oh, this word has a mighty western flavour for me. But it also makes me think of the T-shirts I saw for sale in Tijuana when I was there in, um, 1980 (they probably still have them) that read “Tijuana Pussy Posse” – of course they were illustrated with cats. And then there’s the hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse, which reminds us that posse is now used commonly in hip hop circles – the posse has taken on a gangsta air, quite contrary to the spontaneous law-enforcement idea of the old west posse. But, then, Jamaican posses are actual criminal gangs, so that takes it even a step further.
No matter how you slice it, posse is a word that has a wild edge. The puff of air in the first syllable also brings a taste of fur and claws with its “paw” sound; the “see” in the second might suggest that you set down your coffee and have a look-see. But, now, we know where a posse comes from – it’s who of the local able-bodied men the sheriff can round up to pursue a miscreant – but do we know where posse comes from?
We could say it comes from England, because that’s where posses first came from (though they’re obsolete in English common law). But the word itself is Latin. And I don’t mean Spanish; I mean Latin. It’s short for posse comitatus, which means “force of the county”. Comitatus, meaning “county” (or “of the county”), comes from a word for “companion” because a count was a companion of the king (and, as it happens, posse comitatus could be said to mean “force of companions”). Posse is translated here as “force” but could also come through as “power” or “ability” or, infinitive, “be able”; it is also related to potent, potency, potential, and so on.
So… posse can be translated as “be able”. One could from that say that someone who is being pursed by a posse has a “can” on his tail… and they aim to have him end up in the can. They’ll do whatever they must to possess him; they’ll even lasso him if necessary.