Friday, September 06, 2013

Protest



Roland wrote, “I’ve been puzzling over the word protest. If you protest, you are actively and vocally against something. But I thought that the pro- prefix means for or in favor of. Any help with this?”

You are correct in noting that pro- normally signifies being in favor of something (pro-Arab), but it can also mean towards the front, in public view, forward in time, extended in space, standing in place of, and is even used in a few archaic terms of relationship (pronephew).

What seems to have happened is that when French assimilated some Latin terms using the prefix pro-, the emphasis changed. The second element in the word protest is related to testfy or declare, and it also shows up in words such as attest and contest. A protestor would push his or her own viewpoint forward, but it was usually the result of negating or acting against a policy in place. Thus, the latent anti- element began to receive more emphasis.

When the word came into English, it was first used as a legal term. It was a stipulation meant to protect the legal rights of the protesting party. It was a reservation or condition meant to safeguard legal redress, and it brought the idea of challenge even more to the fore.

So while a protest has an undeniably positive element, there is also the element of challenge, dispute, or negation.

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