The Vocabularist: Ransom, red lines and coalitions

Richard the Lionheart Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Paying Richard I's ransom was a "sacred" duty, Churchill wrote

Some newspapers, and a former prime minister, have accused the SNP of holding the country to ransom over Trident. But the SNP insists the issue is a red line.

Ransom is one of those classical words which constant familiar usage has shortened and smoothed - like "nurse" from nutrix, and "priest" from presbyteros.

It comes via French ranson or rancon from Latin redemptio - which means buying back (think of "caveat emptor") and which the Romans sometimes used for buying back captives.

Paying a ransom has often been seen as a kind, even a holy act - a "redemption".

Winston Churchill wrote that England was "staggered" when the German Emperor demanded 150,000 silver marks - twice the annual royal revenue - for Richard I. But it set to work to collect the cash, said Churchill, "because nothing was more sacred than to ransom the liege lord".

Nowadays paying a ransom attracts much criticism from those who say it encourages hostage-takers.

One captive who paid up, says the biographer Plutarch, was Julius Caesar. But he didn't encourage the pirates who kidnapped him - he returned and crucified them.

Of red line the best-known use is the "Thin Red Line" of the 1854 Battle of Balaclava - though WH Russell actually called the heroic stand of the 93rd Highlanders "a thin red streak tipped with a line of steel".

Image copyright ALAMY

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Clinton probably knew the phrase when they said in 2012 that if the Syrians used chemical weapons it would be "a red line for us".

But using "line" for a limit which another person must not cross is such an obvious metaphor that it could be coined again tomorrow by someone who knew none of its past associations.

Image caption All the words related to line descend from a word for flax

More interesting is the ancestry of "line" itself. Derived from a word for flax, its descent splits apart and comes together again like the strands of a thread.

We cannot say whether it came to us through Latin "linum" or related Germanic words - it could be both.

These words give us linen and linseed, and "line" meaning a thread, a string (fishing line) or even a rope (mooring line).

And then a mark which is long and thin like a thread, and so a succession, or arrangement (line of descent, battle line).

The Oxford English Dictionary says "lining" clothes comes from linen being used to do it. There is a bit of a jump here, though - the earliest examples quoted by the OED do not mention linen. Chaucer, for instance, says the Doctor of Physic's clothes were "Lyned with Taffata and with Sendal [kinds of silk]".

Meanwhile the meaning of "red" and its ancestors has changed little over millennia. Some say it is the only word for a colour which can be traced right back to Proto Indo-European language.

It is often associated with danger or urgency, perhaps because it suggests blood, or because it jumps out from a picture or a page.

When parties agree on their red lines, they may form a coalition.

The -al- in the middle comes from an ancient Latin word which is the ancestor of a wide range of terms connected with growing.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Novelist Anthony Trollope said coalitions could be "feeble, disastrous... even disgraceful"

Altus means grown, and so tall, giving us altitude and altimeter - "alo" meaning nourish produced words to do with food such as alimentary. Alesco, "grow", with co- on the front meant "grow together" - and already in Latin could be used of people joining in agreement. Coalitio, our "coalition", is formed from it.

Coalition in English has sometimes meant the closing of a wound, and the unity of God and humanity through Christ.

In Britain it began to mean particularly an alliance of differing political interests from the early 18th Century and sometimes it leaves a taste of failure, the result of an inconclusive election.

Anthony Trollope said some thought coalitions "generally feeble, sometimes disastrous, and on occasions even disgraceful".

But in America the word has retained a more general and less negative meaning. Hence "the coalition of the willing" and "coalition forces", usually meaning the US and its allies.


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