Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Yes, It's a "Resignation"

In the days since Benedict XVI announced the intention to give up his office, a curious urban myth has sprung up on the internet.  And no, we aren't talking about any of the wacky conspiracy theories.  We mean the assertion that Benedict didn't say he was going to resign, because he can't resign, but only abdicate.

Please don't fall for this foolishness.

The claim is that, as matter of language, resignation requires a superior, to whom one can hand a letter, the way you might at your office (if you didn't scream profanities and storm out the door, you impulsive creature).  Since Benedict has no mortal superior, the argument goes, he can only do what, say, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands recently did -- abdicate.

That argument hinges on an understanding of the word "resign" which is ... idiosyncratic.  By which we mean "wrong."  Terry Mattingly recently headlined a column with this contention.  His better-informed readers took him to task at once, saving us the effort.

Our proper dictionaries (OED and American Heritage) are still in crates, but here is what the Online Etymological Dictionary site says:

resign (v.): late 14c., from Old French resigner, from Latin resignare "to check off, cancel, give up," from re- "opposite" (see re-) + signare "to make an entry in an account book," literally "to mark" (see sign). The sense is of making an entry (signum) "opposite" -- on the credit side -- balancing the former mark and thus canceling the claim it represents. The meaning of "give up a position" is first recorded late 14c. Sense of "to give (oneself) up to some emotion or situation" is from 1718.

This sounds quite convincing.  "Give up a position" is certainly the most common sense of the word.  Although there is a remote sense of signing something, that thing certainly need not be a letter to one's boss, and is in any case metaphorical at this point anyway.  Other sources provide synonyms which include -- wait for it -- "abdicate."

Mind you, they do have a point.  "To abdicate" originally meant "to disown or disinherit," but from the late 17th century has also been used to mean "renounce sovereignty."  In that sense, it is a very useful and specific word to describe what Benedict has chosen to do.

But "resign" is more common, and is simply not incorrect.

In any case, it is worth remembering that Benedict didn't use either of these words.  Speaking in Latin, he used the verb renuntio, congnate with "to renounce."  (Lewis & Short gloss it as "To retract, revoke, recall, refuse, give up, break off, disclaim, renounce, repudiate"). This is, as you might expect, the same verb used in Canon 332, with which Benedict took care to comply:
Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur.
And what is the official translation, as published at the Vatican website?  Here:
If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.
Oh, yes.  Resign.

So, in other words:  abdicate is a great word, and we should all use it freely in this case.  Renounce is an excellent word, and seems quite literal here.  But resign is also perfectly good English, and describes what the Pope has said he will do at the end of the month.


mark said...

More here:

Mark C. Christianson said...

One has to wonder what the point of making that supposed distinction really is. What would be at stake, apart from displaying one's pedantry, in insisting that Benedict XVI didn't resign but is abdicating? The purpose of the assertion is lost on me. Maybe that's because it is a distinction lacking in substance or difference.

Father Anonymous said...

I suspect it's just a display of phony erudition.

In Mattingly's case, there may be a specific rhetorical purpose, though. Since Get Religion exists in large part to show up the inadequacy of the press when dealing with religion, this may have been an attempt to say "Hah! Look at my ignorant colleagues in the media, who apply the language of a corporate office to life in the papal court."

Father Anonymous said...

As an aside, I am beginning to worry that GR has jumped some sort of shark lately. Their posts seem to be getting shriller and less defensible lately. Or is it just me?