The Grammarphobia Blog

Processing to the altar

Q: I missed Pat the last time she was on WNYC and didn’t get a chance to ask her about something that has been bothering me. In describing a religious procession, the Catholic press often says things like this: “The priest and lector processed to the altar.” Shouldn’t it be “proceeded” to the altar or “approached” it?

A: We’re sorry you missed Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show, but do you know that you can listen at any time on your computer by going to our WNYC page?

As for your question about the verb “process” (accented on the second syllable), this usage dates from the early 19th century, so it’s relatively new as words go.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb as meaning “to go, walk, or march in procession,” and in fact it’s a back-formation from the noun “procession.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an older one.)

In this sense, “process” is modeled after the verbs “progress” and “transgress,” the OED adds.

It was first recorded, according to Oxford, in Strains of the Mountain Muse (1814), a book of old tales and traditions collected by Joseph Train, a Scottish antiquary and folklorist.

Train wove the old tales into narrative verse form, and the relevant lines (which we’ve expanded from the OED citation) read:

From old Kilwinning’s sacred fane,
Slow marches forth a mystic train,
As venerably as when they
Process on Dedication day.

The OED’s next citation records the use of the verb in the past tense. It’s from a letter written in 1824 by Countess Granville: “On Christmas Day we processed into the chapel.”

In its early days, the dictionary says, the verb was considered colloquial—that is, more suited to speech than to formal writing. (Many back-formations begin life as colloquial expressions.)

But it eventually gained acceptance. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list this use of the verb “process” as standard English, though M-W labels is as a “chiefly British” usage.

It retains something of the flavor of a procession or a stately march, which can lend humor when used in an ordinary situation.

For example, the illustration used in American Heritage, from a novel by Anita Brookner, is faintly humorous: “The man in the panama hat offered his arm and … they processed into the dining room.”

This verb, as we said earlier, is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable (pruh-SESS).

The other verb spelled “process” has a different pronunciation (it’s accented on the first syllable, PRAH-sess), and means to prepare, treat, alter, or deal with something.

And you may be surprised to hear the verb meaning to process something (food, for example) is even newer than the verb that means to process somewhere (say, to the altar).

The OED’s earliest published reference for this sense of the word is from an 1878 issue of the Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye: “Some have been adding a sufficient quantity of that non-crystallizable substance, known as glucose. Honey thus ‘processed’ will not thicken, but it is certainly not pure.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the newer verb was derived from the noun “process,” meaning “a set of actions or changes in a special order (as in the process of making cloth from wool).”

Though the two verbs spelled “process” are so different in pronunciation and meaning, they have a distant ancestor in common.

The nouns they come from, “procession” and “process,” can be traced to the classical Latin process-, the participial stem of the verb procedere (to advance, go forward, come forth).

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