success, accessories, and receding hairlines

One of my favorite things about studying Latin, ever since my first days as a freshman in high school, has been thinking about English words that seem to have nothing in common until one identifies the Latin root they share. What do success and accessories have to do with each other, at a linguistic level? What about legal proceedings and receding hairlines?

In this post I’ll focus on the Latin word cedere, which is usually defined as “to yield/withdraw/give way/allow”—basically “to go” with a sense of motion away from. English-speakers pronounce it with a hard “c”: something like “KAY-de-ruh.”

In English, we get cede and cease from this verb. Add the prefix in- and we get incessant: unyielding, ceaseless.

Why the change from “d” in cede to “ss” in incessant? Latin verbs are shown in dictionaries with their “principal parts”: different forms the verbs take that allow the reader to see potential changes in the stem. The four principal parts of today’s verb are cedo, cedere, cessi, cessus. So, some English words that derive from cedere will have a “d” in one form and an “ss” in another. One can see the “d” to “ss” shift carry into English in recede/recession.

Concede/concession follows the same pattern. Why do we call the snacks we buy at a baseball game or movie theater “concessions”? Because the purveyors are kind enough to allow us to eat in their facility? No, a concession stand got its name because the entity that owns the whole space (the park, theater, or arena) concedes that another company may sell goods in a designated location within their space.  According to Wikipedia (take that for what it’s worth), movie theaters originally did not like people selling snacks to patrons (I don’t think they had leaf blowers to help with the cleanup back then), but during the Great Depression they came around and allowed it, and now they generally sell the snacks themselves. The term concessions sticks around even though it’s no longer accurate in this case.

More great words from cedere that we get just by slapping on a prefix include intercede, antecedent, precede/precedent, and secede/secession (se- as a prefix means oneself; with cedere = to withdraw/remove oneself).

Some prefixes would be difficult to pronounce next to the hard “c” in cedere. In these instances, we end up with derivatives with a double “c” such as succeed/success, from sub- (under) + cedere. But wait, what does success have to do with yielding or withdrawing or permitting? We have to go back to the most basic meaning of cedere, i.e. motion away from.  So, to succeed is to go out from under, thus to ascend or mount, thus to accomplish or achieve.

Sometimes, thanks to the evolution of the English language, we end up with words that sound like their fellow cedere derivatives but take on a slightly different spelling, as with succeed. So if we want to add the prefix pro- (forward or in front) to cedere, we do not spell the resulting English word procede, but rather, proceed. The OED gives many other historic spellings of this word, including proceede, prosede, proceade, proseede, procead, proceeid, proceyd, procied, prosead, and proside. Thank goodness for standardized spelling, I say. Procedure, process, and procession take us back to our familiar cedere principal parts.

Lastly, I’d like to explore what happens when we combine the prefix ad- (to, towards) with cedere. To accede is either to come to (an agreement), or to yield to (another’s opinion or desire). What about nouns? I like to think of an accessory such as a necklace or a watch yielding to other items one is wearing, as if to acknowledge its relative unimportance. An accessary to a crime carries a sense of less culpability than, say, an accomplice, as an accessary seems to have just yielded to someone else’s plan, or allowed the crime to happen.

Hopefully, knowing more about the Latin word cedere and its many permutations in English will enrich your experience with these words. This kind of knowledge can also really help with spelling. I had one very bright high school student who probably would not have turned in a paper with the phrase “reseeding hairline” if he had paid a little more attention when we went over cedere.

7 responses to “success, accessories, and receding hairlines

  1. Adrienne,

    As always, I love these linguistics posts. You pack so much in! Keep it coming, please.


  2. I’ll second the previous comment, and add that from Latin necessārius, which meant literally ‘that can not be gotten away from,’ we have necessary.

  3. Necessary! That’s a great one. Thanks so much for adding that.

    Alyssa, thanks for the feedback. I’ll keep writing them as long as I know people are enjoying them!

  4. An excellent source for finding relatives of English words that have an Indo-European origin is the appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary. The dictionary itself is online, but the appendix of Indo-European roots is not. It was the appendix that pointed me to necessary as a descendant of the root in Latin cedere. Another surprising descendant is ancestor, which is a version of the less common antecessor ‘one who goes before.’

  5. Oooh I think I have a copy at home. It’s always good to have more resources, so thanks for directing me there. Typically I develop these posts by brainstorming a basic list, wandering around for a few days to think of more examples, and then consulting Latin dictionaries and the OED for anything I’d missed. Words like ancestor that are another step removed from the root tend to fall through the cracks.

  6. Right you are. The appendix of the American Heritage Dictionary is especially helpful in turning up less-obvious connections.

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