The Grammarphobia Blog

“Accede” vs. “concede”

Q: We have been thinking about the difference between “accede” and “concede.” Can you concede something without acceding to it? Or vice versa? Thanks for any help/guidance you can provide.

A: Both of these verbs express a kind of giving in or acquiescence. The difference is that “concede” has an element of defeat, while “accede” implies a more ready acceptance.

Standard dictionaries define “concede” as to yield, surrender, or admit defeat, or to acknowledge—perhaps grudgingly—that something is true.

And they define “accede” as to give consent or approval, or to agree to a request or demand.

(We’re summarizing the modern definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

So yes, it’s possible to “concede” without “acceding,” because the verbs represent different levels of acquiescence. You might reluctantly agree to something without approving of it.

The truth is that few people use “accede” in ordinary English. “Concede” is much more common. Instead of “accede,” a speaker or writer is more likely to use a common synonym—agree with, approve of, or consent to.

On the surface, it would appear that the two words were derived from “cede,” but in fact neither of them were.

It’s true that at the heart of all three English words is the Latin cedere, a verb that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to go away, give way, yield.”

But “accede” predated “cede” by a couple of centuries, while “concede” appeared on the scene around the same time as “cede” or a bit earlier.

What’s more, the prefixes (“con-” and “ac-”) are no help in figuring out the different meanings of “accede” and “concede,” so the words are easy to confuse.

“Accede” came into English from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French verb acceder, meaning to approach, accept, or agree to.

That verb’s counterpart in classical Latin, accedere, had several meanings, Oxford explains, including “to go or come (to), draw near, approach, to enter, to resort (to), to attach oneself, join, to agree, assent.”

The Latin suffix ac- (“to” or “toward”) was a variant of ad– that was used before certain letters.

It’s difficult to say just how old “accede” is in English writing. The OED says it could date back to 1425 or even earlier.

But the first definite citation, Oxford says, was recorded in 1465, when the verb meant “to come forward, approach, or arrive (at a place or state).”

Another early meaning of “accede” was to join with or give support. But those early senses of the word are long dead.

The meaning of “accede” that’s still with us, a sense first recorded in 1534, is “to assent, agree, give way,” according to Oxford.

A later meaning, to come into office or assume a position, came along in the mid-1700s and is often used in reference to royalty, as when a monarch “accedes” to the throne. (We also refer to a king or queen’s “accession.”)

Now for the latecomers, “cede” and “concede,” which came into English in the 17th century.

“Cede” first appeared in 1633, the OED says, a borrowing either from French or (more directly) from Latin.

Originally, “cede” meant “to give way, give place, yield to”—as in “a servant cedes to his master.”

But that early meaning is now obsolete, Oxford says, and since the 1750s to “cede” has meant “to give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory.”

The modern sense of the word first appeared in the travel writings of Alexander Drummond in 1754: “That honour was entirely ceded to the Parthian royal race.”

“Concede” was first recorded in 1632, so it and “cede” showed up at virtually the same time.

“Concede” came either from the French conceder or directly from the Latin concedere, which Oxford defines as “to withdraw, give way, yield, grant, etc.”

The essential meaning of “concede” was—and still is—“to grant, yield, or surrender” something like a right or a privilege, Oxford explains. (Here the prefix “con-” means “altogether.”)

In the 1640s, according to the OED, a new sense of “concede” was recorded: “to admit, allow, grant (a proposition), to acknowledge the truth, justice, or propriety of (a statement, claim, etc.).”

For example, in an argument a speaker might “concede” a point or “concede” that a statement is true.

The “concede” that means to admit defeat in an election was first recorded in 1824, when a Kentucky newspaper, the Commentator, reported:  “This state is generally conceded to General Jackson.”

And of course when a candidate  “concedes,” a “concession” speech is not far behind.

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