condign

This word was mentioned to me today at work by Christina Vasilevski, who was in the kitchen dining. It has a couple of interesting aspects: first, even if you don’t recall ever seeing it before, you can probably guess how to pronounce it – in spite of its pronunciation not being exactly what people would call phonetic. Second, the odds are very high that if you see it you see it before one word in particular: punishment.

Let’s just look at the spelling of this word for a moment. The con is no problem. If you take it to condi, it still seems to be no problem – it just looks like the nickname of Condoleezza Rice – but the pronunciation has already gone off the rails. If you look at the back half, dign, how you see it depends on context. If I tell you it’s a root, not a word, how do you want to pronounce it? As in dignity, indignant, and so forth? But if it’s at the end of a word, we can’t do that: you just can’t end a syllable with /gn/ – actually, you can’t have them together in the same syllable at all in English. So the i becomes “long” and the g is elided. Go figure – typical English.

Except that, like so much of our spelling weirdness, we got it from French. Which also does not permit such combinations. So the /g/ was weakened to the point of being a mere palatal push-up of the tongue before the /n/, and this resulted in a lengthening of the /i/. Which was then taken into English when the word was borrowed in the 1400s. And then English shifted that /i/ sound to what it has become today, a diphthong.

You need not condone it, but you cannot consign it to the indignity of the rubbish-heap. It works the way English spelling-pronunciation relationships work: by the common law of resemblance and pattern. It is aligned with other signs, whether by design malign or benign; resign yourself to assigning it that pronunciation. You may wish to campaign to arraign it, though I would not deign to feign to do so. But, notwithstanding the occasional ensign from a foreign sovereign, the pattern is set.

Well, it’s no more or less than we deserve, as you can discover in greater depth in “What’s up with English spelling?” Our perverse orthography is condign punishment for our lexical pilfering and various prescriptive perversities.

And what, thus, is condign encoding? Well, it’s from con “together” and dignus “worthy”; originally it meant “equal in worth or dignity”, or “deserving”, and thence “fitting, appropriate”. It just happens that since the late 1600s its pattern of use has tightly followed that set by Tudor Acts of Parliament, which use it in reference to punishment. You may rarely see it with related words such as justice and vengeance. It could be suited to a variety of other high-toned uses, condign with its Latinate formation and silent g and rarity of use; as Thomas De Quincey noted, it would be nice to speak of condign honours, condign reward, condign treatment. It seems, in some contexts, more fitting than fitting.

But, ah, you can try, and perhaps you will get somewhere, but these tides of usage can be so inexorable as to seem divignly ordeigned…

3 responses to “condign

  1. I checked the collocates of condign in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (hooray for alliteration), and, indeed, the most common word in conjunction with condign is indeed ‘punishment’, along with ‘justice’, ‘fury’ and ‘outrage’. ‘Twould seem you are correct that no one condigns anything positive to someone.

    • The COCA is exactly where I looked for collocates – so it’s no surprise you got the same results! Also, the OED says that the collocation with punishment is the only current use.

  2. As Poo-Bah said in W.S. Gilbert’s libretto for “The Mikado,” about a painless way to end one’s life, “With grief condign, I must decline.”

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