Q: “Court” seems to be an incredibly adaptable word—a royal court, a tennis court, a court of law, courting a beau or a client, heartache or disaster. Where did it all begin?
A: All those senses of “court” (in law, romance, diplomacy, sports, etc.) ultimately come from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed area—what we’d now call a courtyard.
As cohors evolved in Latin, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today.”
“But both in its original sense and as ‘retinue’ the word took another and rather more disguised path into English,” Ayto writes.
While the English word retained “the underlying notion” of an enclosed area, he says, it added a judicial sense because of “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”
The respect and attention that one offers at a judicial court led to the diplomatic, romantic, and summoning senses of the term, while the sports sense comes from the original meaning of cohors in Latin as an enclosed area.
When “court” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a meeting of a ruler with his retinue as well as the place where such a meeting was held.
The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the term (spelled “curt” here) in the sense of “a formal assembly held by the sovereign at his residence” with “his councillors and great lords, for purposes of administration”:
“Þa he to Engle land com. þa was he under fangen mid micel wurtscipe. and to king bletcæd in Lundene on þe Sunnen dæi. be foren midwinter dæi and held þær micel curt” (“When he came to England, he was received with great honor. He was consecrated King in London on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and then he held a great court there”).
The passage is from an 1154 entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the death of King Stephen, the arrival from France of Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, and his consecration in London as King Henry II.
The next Oxford example, which we’ve also expanded, uses the term in the sense of “the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” This comes from a parable in the Cotton Vespasian A. Homilies, dated at sometime before 1175:
“þat an rice king wes. strang and mihti. his land gélest wide and side. his folc was swiðe ærfeð-telle … and he nam him tó rede þat heom wolde ȝearceon anæ grate laðienge. and þider ȝeclepíen all his underþeód. þat hi bi éne féce to his curt come sceolde and sette ænne déȝie” (“there was a rich king who was strong and mighty; his land stretched far and wide; his people were numerous … and he decided to prepare a great feast and call all his subjects thither so that they should come at the same time to his court”).
The word took on its legal sense in the late 13th century when “court” came to mean “an assembly of judges or other persons legally appointed and acting as a tribunal to hear and determine any cause, civil, ecclesiastical, military, or naval.”
The first OED citation is from a treatise in Middle French that sets forth the laws of England (early legal works in England were in Latin or French): “en dreit de nous mesures et de nostre Curt” (“with regard to ourselves and our Court”). From Britton, 1292, a work whose origin and author are in dispute; some early sources say John le Breton, bishop of Hereford, wrote it at the direction of King Edward I.
The first Oxford example that’s written in Middle English is from a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history: “The king wolde, that in is court the ple solde be driue” (“The king willed that the plea be pursued in his court”).
In the early 16th century, “court” took on the sense of “an enclosed quadrangular area, uncovered or covered, with a smooth level floor, in which tennis, rackets, or fives are played.” (In fives, an English sport, players use bare or gloved hands to hit a ball against the walls of a court with three or four sides.)
The first OED citation uses the term in reference to a court for lawn tennis: “Hen. Smith, for ceiling the great armoury house at Greenwich, the Friar’s wharf, the tennis court at Richmond, and other places, 200l.” From a March 1519 entry in King Henry VIII’s Book of Payments. At the time, the verb “ceil” meant to add a canopy.
In the late 16th century, the noun “court” took on the sense of “homage such as is offered at court,” specifically as “attention or courtship shown to one whose favour, affection, or interest is sought.” The earliest OED example uses the term in its diplomatic sense: “Him the Prince with gentle court did bord [address]” (from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, 1590).
The verb “court,” which showed up in the early 1500s, originally meant to live at a royal court or spend a lot of time there. But by the late 1500s it was being used in its romantic sense.
The first Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is also from The Faerie Queene: “And in the midst thereof vpon the floure, / A louely beuy [bevy] of faire Ladies sate, / Courted of many a iolly Paramoure, / The which them did in modest wise amate.”
In the early 1600s, the use of the verb began expanding to include the seeking of things other than romance, such as power, friendship, publicity, or popularity: “Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall” (The Historie of the Holy Warre, 1639, by Thomas Fuller).
And by the mid-19th century, according to our searches, the verb broadened even more to include inviting or provoking something negative. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book of homespun philosophy:
“Therefore, in the first, saints and martyrs have fulfilled their mission, / Conquering dangers, courting deaths, and triumphing in all” (Proverbial Philosophy, 1843, by Martin Farquhar Tupper).
The verb phrase “court disaster” showed up a dozen years later, according to our searches: “Gladwyn discouraged the enterprise, conceiving it, doubtless, as rash and perilous to court disaster” (History of American Conspiracies, 1863, by Orville J. Victor).
Over the years, many other descendants of the Latin cohors have appeared in English, including “courtier” (circa 1290), “courtesy” (before 1200), “courtly” (c. 1450), “courthouse” (1483), “cohort” (1489), “courting” (1530), “curtsy” (noun, 1513; verb, before 1556), “courtyard” (1552), “courtesan” (1549), “courtship” (1597), “pay [or make] one’s court” (1667), and “courtroom” (1677). (In a 2017 post, we discussed “courtesy” and “curtsy.”)