The Grammarphobia Blog

Cess who?

Q: The other day an Irish friend wished “bad cess” to the bankers responsible for Ireland’s economic woes. Is that “cess” as in “cesspool”? Too bad this is too late for St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe next year.

A: Why wait for St. Patrick’s Day to come around again? In fact, tax day (yes, today is the deadline for filing) may be just as appropriate. More on this later.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “bad cess to” as an Anglo-Irish phrase meaning “bad luck to” or “evil befall.”

The OED’s first published reference for the usage is from Punch in 1859: “Carlisle and Russell—bad cess to their clan!”

But a Google Books search turned up a much earlier example.

In a story published in 1833 in the Dublin University Magazine, a character named Barny O’Reirdon says, “Whist, whist! and bad cess to you both.”

And the busy scanners at Google have also provided us with several 19th-century appearances of “good cess,” meaning good luck.

Here’s an 1857 example from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art: “Oh, he’s a curious crayther, tho pig, an has his own ways, good cess to him!”

How did “cess” come to mean luck or fortune? The etymology here is a question mark, though the OED offers two suggestions:

(1) It could be short for “success.” This seems unlikely to us, since “good success” is redundant and “bad success” is an oxymoron.

(2) It could have something to do with taxes—a timely subject today, even if we’re too late for St. Patrick’s Day!

A “cess” has meant an assessment, tax, or levy since at least as far back as the 16th century. It’s an aphetic (or shortened) form of  “assess.”

(While the proper etymological spelling of the shortened term would be “sess,” the word generally appears as “cess.”)

“Cess” seems to have  been a product of English officialdom.

The OED’s first citation is from an act of Henry VIII in 1531 that makes reference to “divers and sundry Cesses, Scots, and Taxes.” (A “scot” is an assessment.)

Jonathan Swift in the 18th century refers to a “parish cess,” or church tax. Similar usages spread to other parts of the Empire.

In Scotland, for example, a “cess” referred to a land tax in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And in 19th-century India, a journalist wrote of “the road cess, the irrigation cess, the public works cess, and the education cess.” (Today all taxes in India are subject to an education cess of 3 percent.)

In Ireland, “cess” is still the official term for a local tax. But it once had another and more sinister meaning, and we think this is where “bad cess” comes from.

The OED defines this meaning of “cess,” first recorded around 1571, as “the obligation to supply the soldiers and the household of the lord deputy with provisions at prices ‘assessed’ or fixed by government.”

In other words, the Irish populace was arbitrarily forced to support the occupying soldiers and the personal needs of the lord deputy.

At any rate, to wish someone “bad cess” would be a curse indeed. A contributor to the Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland had this to say in 1889:

“Before barracks were commonly built in Ireland, it was usual to quarter soldiers permanently upon the inhabitants, and this was called ‘cessing’ them. It was possible that the soldiers thus quartered might be well conducted and respectable men, but if (which was more than probable) they were not very desirable persons to have the run of a man’s house and premises, this might  be reasonably called a ‘bad cess’; and a few things can be imagined to have been more disagreeable.”

As for “cesspool,” the OED says the word is “of uncertain origin,” though the dictionary offers several theories.

The most likely, in our opinion, is that the English term is somehow related to the Italian word for privy, cesso, which is derived from the Latin secessus, a secluded place.

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