Etymology Usage

How good is Captain Renault’s English?

Q: For the nth time, I watched Casablanca and for the nth time I was baffled by Claude Rains’s line, “Well! A precedent is being broken.” The line doesn’t make sense based on my understanding of the word “precedent.”

A: That line is delivered in a scene set in Rick’s Cafe Americain. Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) has just introduced Rick (Humphrey Bogart ) to her companion, Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

Rick is famous for never drinking with customers. So when Laszlo invites Rick to join them for a drink, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) interrupts to say, “No, no, Rick never—”

But Rick says, “Thanks. I will.” He then sits down at their table.

Renault comments, “Well! A precedent is being broken.”

We hear the usage again later in the movie, when Rick intercepts Laszlo’s bill and refuses to let him pay. Renault says, “Another precedent gone.”

Is Renault using the word “precedent” incorrectly? We don’t think so.

Although this isn’t the way most of us use the word, we can’t find any evidence that it’s wrong.

The noun “precedent” entered English in the 1400s. It was adapted from the identical adjective meaning “earlier in time,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Leaving aside the judicial senses of the word, the OED defines the noun in part as meaning “a previous instance taken as an example or rule by which to be guided in similar cases or circumstance.”

Standard dictionaries have that definition, but they include another as well. “Precedent” can also be defined as a convention or custom established by long practice.

We consulted The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and others.

In other words, “precedent” can mean either (1) the initial instance that creates a custom or (2) the custom itself.

Normally, a precedent is “set” or “established,” and then “followed.” And when some event contradicts a policy or tradition, we say it “breaks with precedent,” or “goes against precedent.”

But if “precedent” can mean a pattern or model of conduct, we see no reason why it can’t simply be “broken.” This usage may be unusual or idiosyncratic, but that doesn’t make it incorrect.

Of course, the script of Casablanca is darned near perfect, with nary a note off-key. So one might wonder how a slightly odd usage slipped in. A couple of possibilities come to mind.

First, the Renault character is French, so we wouldn’t expect him to speak perfect idiomatic English.

Second, we know that the team of scriptwriters who worked on the movie wrote quickly, and that some parts of the script were even written after production had begun. So perhaps this can be chalked up to haste.

We will probably never know, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. Personally, we think the idiosyncrasy only adds to the charm of a great movie.

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