English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Plenary session

Q: I’m puzzled by the use of “plenaried” in David Brooks’s column last month about little-known oil, gas, and farming capitalists who are transforming the world. Can you assist with a definition?

A: In his March 12, 2013, Op-Ed column in the New York Times, Brooks says the fashionable entrepreneurs who make fantastic presentations at conferences “have turned out to be marginal to history.”

On the other hand, he writes, “the people who are too boring and unfashionable to get invited to the conferences in the first place have actually changed the world under our noses.”

He says these “anonymous drudges” are responsible for a “revolution” in oil, gas, and agricultural production that has “transformed the global balance of power.”

Brooks ends his column with the sentence that puzzled you: “This revolution will not be plenaried.”

So what does “plenaried” mean here?

Well, you won’t find “plenaried” in your dictionary. It’s not in the nine standard American or British dictionaries we checked. It’s not even among the roughly quarter of a million words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

We thought at first that “plenaried” was a nonce word (one coined for a specific occasion), and that Brooks was using it here to mean “discussed at a plenary session.”

But a bit of googling indicates that the usage, though relatively new, has been a around for a while in one form or another.

For example, Michael Kinsley, writing in Slate on Jan. 31, 2002, uses the term to mean “attended a plenary session.”

In discussing a guide for newcomers to the annual World Economic Forum at Davos,  Switzerland, Kinsley refers to media fellows who “have plenaried their little hearts out year after year to improve the state of the world.”

The phrase “plenary session” refers to a conference attended by all the participants, rather than one broken up into small groups.

The adjective “plenary” is derived from plenarius, a post-classical Latin word that means fully attended. In classical Latin, plenus means full.

When “plenary” entered English in the early 1400s, according to the OED, it meant “full, complete, or perfect; not deficient in any element or respect; absolute.”

The first citation for “plenary session” in the dictionary is from an 1878 English translation of Johann Baptist Alzog’s Handbuch der Universal-Kirchengeschichte (1841), an exposition of Roman Catholic views:

“The subjects brought forward for deliberation … were first distributed to eight Committees and discussed in sixty Plenary Sessions.”

Now we wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few of the people who participated in those 60 plenary sessions felt a bit plenaried at the end.

Check out our books about the English language