Date: Tue, 2 Apr 1996 23:46:57 -0700


Subject: The origins of "discussant" et alia

The following richly informative note on the origins of "discussant" comes

from my learned colleague Carl Berkhout.

In response to Seth Sklarey's query re discussant meaning panelist in

a discussion, the OED gives a 1927 citation for this word. It is of

American origin. Wouldn't you know it? Discussant sets my "dentes" on

edge. Presumably most British people likely to be writing about members

of a discussion have studied at least a bit of Latin and know that you

cant' can't make a present participle from a past participle (discuss

discutio, discutere, discussus) and switch conjugations to boot. But

perhaps I should lighten up and appreciate that in English you CAN mix

and match. A properly formed Latinate participle would yield discutient

instead of discussant and many people wouldn't make the connection.

It's actually the Brits who have given us such present-participial words

as "resistant," descendant," "pendant," "sergeant," "depressant"

(instead of "depriment"), "disinfectant" (instead of "disinficient"),

"repellant" (beside "repellent"), etc., along with quite a few words

that are now rare or obsolete (such as "proposant," "protectant," and,

for that matter, "discutant"). Early or late Latin or resultant French

feminine nouns ("resistentia," etc.) were probably among the various

factors, along with plain old analogy, that produced "-ant" where we

should expect "-ent." The same goes, perhaps, for the occasional

first-conjugation vowel in a gerund derived ultimately from a

third-conjugation verb ("reprimand" "reprimendum/a").

Switching conjugations has been fairly common over the centuries

("mordant," "tenant," "revenant," and so forth), and anything goes once

an English infinitive--and thus a present-tense source of a present

participle--is formed either directly or indirectly via French from a

Latin past participle even though English preserves the historical Latin

vowel in participial suffixes much more often than not. (The infinitive

"discusse(n)" goes back to Late Middle English, and it's in fact mildly

surprising that it seems not to have yielded a present-participial noun

until the 20th century. But even "discussion," which chiefly meant

investigation and/or extirpation in medieval and early Renaissance

times, was relatively slow to fix its present meaning. A factor, I

suspect, was the gradual assimilation of words from "discutere" and from

"discurrere" [ppl. "discursum," whence "discourse"], somewhat in the way

that has produced "curse/cuss" and "burst/bust" in modern English.

Consider this 1590 example:

But leauing the commodities of learning to be discoursed by those

that are learned indeed, this onlie I say, that the endeuour of

Gentlemen ought be either in Armes or learning, or in them both.

segar, honor, v. 70)

Anyway, if things were otherise, we'd always be disponing, dismitting,

and disperging many modern English verbs though never repulsing,

rejecting, or repressing verbs resurrecting forms that we should objitch

to and refund to accip. We could hope only to restringe ourselves to

uting verb forms that promove the latinesquely proper usage.

Patricia vobis plurimam salutem dicit.

Idem tibi quoque dicit Carolus.