English language Uncategorized

A crowning moment

Q: I phoned you on Iowa Public Radio, but I didn’t get a chance to ask my question … actually two. It annoys me when people talk about kings or queens being “coronated” instead of “crowned.” Also, I wonder about “out” vs. “out of” in a phrase like “out (or “out of”) the door.” What do you think?

A: Some modern dictionaries list “coronate” as a verb meaning to crown, but I agree with you. I don’t think “coronate” is what the Archbishop of Canterbury does when he places St. Edward’s Crown on a royal head.

At a coronation, an archbishop “crowns” a king or queen; he does not “coronate” one – at least not in the opinion of most English speakers.

The Oxford English Dictionary does indeed include “coronate” as a verb meaning to crown, but it labels the usage rare. More important, the citations listed in the OED have nothing to do with royal coronations.

Here the verb “coronate” and the past participle “coronated” mean something more like topped or furnished with a corona, as in this 1707 citation from a work about the flora and fauna of Jamaica: “A round purplish knob … coronated by a long membrane.”

An obsolete past participle, “coronate,” though, did mean crowned in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to the OED. A 1513 citation, for example, says “William conquerour …Was coronate at London.”

The word at the bottom (or top!) of all this etymology is “crown.” The OED says it was first recorded in Old English in 1085 as a noun, corona, borrowed from the Latin corona (a wreath, garland, or crown). Later the last syllable fell away, and the spelling gradually evolved into “crown.”

The verb followed a century or so later, spelled crunen in Middle English. The OED‘s first citation is from around 1175, when to “crown” meant “to place a crown, wreath, or garland upon the head of (a person), in token of victory or honour, or as a decoration, etc.; to adorn with the aureole of martyrdom, virginity, etc.”

The use of the verb “crown” in the sense of “to invest with the regal crown” came along circa 1290.

But back to “coronate.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) still lists it as a bona fide verb meaning to crown. However, I don’t think the people saying “coronate” today are using that old verb that the OED describes as rare.

If I had to guess, I’d say the verb “coronate” that you’re hearing is a back-formation from the noun “coronation.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.) In this case, people assume that at a coronation, somebody gets coronated.

You also asked about the use (or nonuse) of the preposition “of” in phrases like “out of the door.” These phrases are standard English whether they include “of” or not. The choice (“out of the door” or “out the door”) is up to you.

In certain contexts, the fuller phrase may sound better to your ear. In others, dropping “of” may sound more idiomatic: “I kicked him out the door!” Or, as Groucho Marx said: “Love flies out the door when money comes innuendo.”

If you want to read more, I’ve written a blog entry about a different “of” issue: the sometimes redundant phrase “off of.” And I’ve written another post that briefly touches on the issue.

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