Etymology Usage

The nouning of “remit”

Q: I recently read an English-language report from Israel about the creation of a government team whose “remit” was to recommend ways to deal with ultra-Orthodox extremism. This use of “remit” as a noun is new to me.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes this use of “remit” as chiefly British. If you’re an American, that may explain why it’s unfamiliar to you. A bit of googling suggests, however, that it’s not uncommon among English speakers in Israel.

The OED defines the meaning of the noun that caught your eye as “a set of instructions, a brief; an area of authority or responsibility.”

Although this sense of the word is relatively new (it first showed up in the 19th century), the noun “remit” has been around in one form or another since the 15th century.

In Scottish English, according to the OED, it used to refer to a pardon or remission, but that meaning is now considered obsolete.

It’s still used, though, in Scotland for the referral of a matter to another person or authority for settlement. It’s also still used for the transfer of a case from one court or judge to another. And in New Zealand, a “remit” is an item submitted for consideration at a meeting, conference, and so on.

The word “remit” entered English in the 14th century as a verb meaning to give up a right or claim. The source is the Latin remittere (it means, among other things, to send back a person or a reply).

The English verb has had many meanings over the years, including to forgive a sin, to pardon, to abandon, to send back to prison, to transfer someone from one court to another for trial, and of course to send or transfer money.

We suspect that the sense of “remit” you asked about (the noun meaning an area of authority) reflects the Scottish noun for referring a matter to someone or some authority for settlement.

The Scottish usage first showed up in 1650, according to OED citations, but the use of the noun in the sense that caught our eye didn’t appear until more than 300 years later.

The earliest citation in the dictionary for the newer usage is from an 1877 book by William Alexander, a Scottish writer, about rural life in the 18th century: “Mr. Wight does not appear to have considered it within his remit to offer remarks in detail upon the state of the roads.”

Although this usage isn’t seen often in the United States, it does show up from time to time.

In fact, the latest OED citation for this sense of the noun is from the June 22, 2006, issue of the New York Review of Books: “Even their generous remit wouldn’t allow them to include the dictionary entire.”

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