The Grammarphobia Blog

How ‘emergency’ emerged

Q: Is there a historical connection between “emerge” and “emergency”?

A: Yes, the two words are related. Etymologically, an “emergency” is the emerging of something unexpected.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ll expand here, is from a sermon given by John Donne on Jan. 29, 1625, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:

“The Psalmes are the Manna of the Church. As Manna tasted to every man like that he liked best, so doe the Psalmes minister Instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion.”

The OED defines this sense of “emergency” as “a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action,” and describes it as the “ordinary modern use.”

However, the dictionary also notes a related sense, now rare, that appeared around the same time and reflected the word’s classical origins: “The rising of a submerged body above the surface of water.”

Oxford cites an example from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a 1646 reference work in which the English polymath Thomas Browne debunks various myths and superstitions, including the belief in “a Tyrant, who to prevent the emergencie of murdered bodies did use to cut off their lungs.”

The nouns “emergency” and “emergence,” as well as the verb “emerge,” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin ēmergere (to rise out or up). The Latin verb is a compound of the prefix ē- (out) and mergere (to dive or sink).

If you’re wondering, mergere is the source of the English verb “merge.” As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “merge” meant to immerse or submerge in the 17th century, and “the modern meaning ‘combine into one’ did not emerge fully until as recently as the 20th century.”

“It arose,” Ayto writes, “from the notion of one thing ‘sinking’ into another and losing its identity; in the 1920s this was applied to two business companies amalgamating, and the general sense ‘combine’ followed from it.”

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