The Grammarphobia Blog

Election daze

Q: I was just reading your post about “lectititude” and I’m now determined to bring back the word “lectory.” I’m thinking of a reading room with a nice chair and a sign saying “Lectory.” Anyway, towards the end of your post you mention the obsolete word “lection,” which looks incredibly similar to “election.” Are they related?

A: We like the idea of a lectory too. We picture an oak-paneled room with a fireplace, a comfy overstuffed chair, a good reading lamp—and books, of course. A nice bottle of wine wouldn’t hurt, either.

As we wrote in our Oct. 26 post, the Latin verb legere (to read) has given us many words, including a couple that are now obsolete—“lectory” (a place for reading) and “lection” (the act of reading).

Yes, “lection” sounds a lot like “election.” But “election” has nothing to do with reading. It means the act of choosing, and it’s descended from the Latin verb eligere (to pick out or select).

Nevertheless, you’re right to suspect that there’s a link here.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explain, eligere is a compound verb, formed from ex- (out) and ligere, an alternate form of legere. And another meaning of legere, besides to read, is to gather or choose.

So eligere is a cousin of legere.

In fact, it’s not unknown for compound Latin verbs to be spelled both ways, ending in -ligere as well as -legere, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

For example, the OED says the compound Latin verb meaning to neglect has two spellings, negligere and neglegere. “The reason for preference for -ligere or -legere in compounds of legere is not always apparent,” the editors say.

Getting back to “lection” and “election,” it seems that they too have been conflated in the past.

According to the OED, “lection” was briefly used long ago as a version of “election” in the sense of “the formal choosing of a person for an office.”

Oxford has four examples of this usage, including one from the records of the Scottish burgh of Peebles (1462): “Ilke man be his awn vos gaf thair lectioun to the sayd Schyr John.” (“Each man by his own voice gave their lection to the said Sir John.”)

The usage seems to have died out in the 16th century, since the OED’s most recent citation is from 1535.

Besides “lection” and “election,” the Latin verbs legere and eligere are at the roots of many familiar English words, some to do with reading and some to do with being picky (or not).

These words include “lectern,” “lesson,” “lecture,” “legible,” “legend” (literally, something read), “elegant,” “eligible,” “elite,” “collect,” “neglect,” and “select.”

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