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Warren Clements: Word Play

Like jackhammers and foul smells, it's an assault on the census Add to ...

When Stephen Harper's government resolved to kill the mandatory long-form census, I waited to see who would be the first to say that Harper and Industry Minister Tony Clement had taken leave of their census. It's an old pun, but rarely has its application been as satisfying, covering both the ideological recklessness of the move (taking leave of their senses) and the weakening of the Statistics Canada instrument (taking leave of their census).

As far as I can tell, a blog called Dawg's Blawg got there first with a July 9 posting headlined "Taking leave of our census." But the phrase has been in long service. The Dow Jones Capital Markets Report used this headline in April: "Economists take leave of their census." George Ludcke, writing to The Wall Street Journal in 1990 about towns that inflated their census figures to qualify for larger grants, even made a poem of it: "Certain city fathers will be indulging/ In statistical pretenses/ To qualify for more revenue/ By taking leave of their census." A Globe editorial used the chestnut in 1980, commenting on the story of an overly aggressive census-taker: "A few residents, we gather, suspected he'd taken leave of his census some time before."

A few letter-writers have observed that if the government truly believes in the stated reason for killing the mandatory census - that it asks citizens intrusive questions on pain of imprisonment if they refuse - Harper's next step should be to abolish mandatory income-tax forms. Coincidentally, the word "census," although it was derived from the Latin word for registration of Roman citizens, began life in English in the early 1600s as a tax, usually one levied on individuals rather than on property. Later in the century it regained the Latin meaning of registering people for taxation, and by the mid-1700s it acquired its current meaning of counting how many people live in a constituency.

Those who resent the government's actions, or wish to show their consent or dissent, or desire to express some other sentiment, have not taken leave of their senses, since the words consent, dissent, sentiment and sense all derive from the Latin sentire, to feel. It's a simple matter to add the intensive prefix re to the base "sent," indicating that someone has a very strong (and negative) feeling. Similarly, consent incorporates the prefix com, meaning together, which is also how we got consensus.

The dis in dissent is from the Latin prefix meaning apart or away, from the word duo, meaning two. Those watching the duel between statisticians and the government might assume that duel derives from duo, since it is a battle between two forces. As it happens, duel is derived from a form of the Latin bellum, war, though it's possible the "b" became a "d" through an association of duo and bellum. It's also possible that people just began pronouncing it with a "d." Language does that sort of thing. It keeps boredom at bay.

Not only did current English get the census from censere, but it also got the censor. To cense was to judge, and the magistrates who drew up the census in ancient Rome were called censors, which was the sense in which the word entered English in the early 1500s. A few decades later, censors began holding people to account for public morals, and by the mid-1600s they were officially deciding who could and couldn't read certain books. Some censorship led to the burning of books, but censors have no connection with incendiary, which derives from the Latin incendere, to set fire to, which is an amalgam of in (in) and candere (to glow). This is the source of the participle incensed, meaning burning with anger, as in: Some people were incensed to hear of the imminent death of the mandatory long-form census.

The Latin sentire also produced the word "sensible," but that's another story.

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