The Grammarphobia Blog

The house of delegates

Q: I’m having a discussion with a fellow professor over what it means when a government agency delegates a task to a private organization. Does the verb “delegate” mean to devolve ultimate authority? Or can it be used in the sense of handing over a task that the delegator is ultimately responsible for?

A: We don’t see any evidence that the verb “delegate” has ever meant to transfer ultimate authority for something.

When the verb entered English in the early 1500s, it meant—and it still means—to give a deputy or representative the authority to act on one’s behalf.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for the English: “I delegate myne auctorite, je delegue.”

This is how the OED defines the original sense of the word: “To entrust, commit or deliver (authority, a function, etc.) to another as an agent or deputy.”

There’s no suggestion here that the person doing the delegating is giving up ultimate authority for the task that’s being delegated.

In fact, we’ve found quite a few instances in which officials overruled their delegates or withdrew the authority that they delegated.

William K. Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the first Bush administration, discusses the issue in an oral-history interview.

“I believe in delegation—really believe in it,” he says. “I think that people ought to be allowed to make mistakes and if they’re good, they’ll learn from them.”

He adds that he delegated authority to his regional administrators and generally didn’t interfere with their decisions, but he notes:

“There were exceptions to that. I reversed my Regional Administrator on the Two Forks Dam. I also withdrew authority from my Regional Administrator in Chicago to oversee wetlands implementation in the state of Michigan.”

In the early 1600s, according to Oxford, the meaning of the verb “delegate” widened somewhat: “To send or commission (a person) as a deputy or representative, with power to transact business for another; to depute or appoint to act.”

The earliest example of the newer usage is from Henry Cockeram’s The English Dictionarie; or, An Interpreter of Hard English Words (1623): “Delegate, to assigne, to send in commission.”

Again, someone is delegating a subordinate to act in one’s stead, not giving up ultimate authority for the action.

The primary meaning of the verb “delegate” hasn’t changed much over the years. Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines it:

“1. To authorize and send (another person) as one’s representative.

“2. To commit or entrust to another: delegate a task to a subordinate.

In addition to those senses, the OED says, “delegate” took on a specialized legal meaning two hundred years ago: “To assign (one who is debtor to oneself) to a creditor as debtor in one’s place.”

As for its etymology, the English word comes from delegare, Latin for to send, dispatch, assign, or commit, but its ultimate source is leg-, an Indo-European root that’s given us such words as “legal,” “legislator,” “legitimate,” “colleague,” “legate,” and “college.”

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