Sunday, August 19, 2012

Phrase of the Day: “posse comitatus”

This morning’s Los Angeles Times reports ramifications of recent murders of sheriff’s deputies in Louisiana  by a gaggle of trailer trash  (that, of course, is code for “layabout whites”, the way urban youth is code for “layabout blacks”).   The article tiptoes around the politics of the thing, headlining simply

There is so much leeway in “have ties” and “extremist”, that you yourselves  may have “ties” to such a group if you personally know any vegans.  But anyhow, this bunch is not in need of any outside ties to qualify, since they themselves already have their groupuscule there in the trailer park, complete with stockpiled AK-47s.  (“ The department found several suspects had outstanding warrants in Nebraska, Tennessee and Louisiana, Ewing said. The Gage County, Neb., sheriff described Joekel as one of its most wanted fugitives for making `terroristic threats' to law enforcement and people inside a bar there.”) 

Okay, so now for the ties:

Authorities believe Joekel may also have ties to an anti-government group known as "Posse Comitatus" that doesn’t recognize any authority above the level of county sheriff.

Now, this is quite an interesting position -- impractical, perhaps, in this day and age, but  intellectually quite respectable,  being one which (mutatis mutandis) has characterized most of mankind throughout its tribal prehistory.   In the current American context, it may or may not include allegiance to White Supremacy  or Christian Identity (in the capitalized sense of the latter),  but logically, all these notions are distinct.   Perhaps the whole cultural complexus needs a new name, and here you go, piping hot from the ovens of the WDJ wordsmithery:


Still, none of that is to our present purpose, which is rather to maintain pure the springs of Latinity in America.   In re the phrase posse comitatus, the article comments:

The phrase means “power of the country,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL labels the group as “loosely affiliated bands of armed anti-tax and anti-federal government vigilantes and survivalists.”

Now, I may not be able to save the nation from the scourge of post-Modernism, neuro-fascism, Nominalism, or Donald Trump;  but I can at least defend the innocent villagers being stalked by misetymologies.

The Wikipedia (Latin for “All-Wise”) gets it right:

 posse comitatūs, "to have the right to an armed retinue"

Notice the macron on the  ū .  Phonologically, this means that the vowel is long  -- and I mean:  phonemically long, not just phonetically.  (Neither English, nor the Latinate daughter languages, any longer show forth this principle, but it is still operative in many languages, such as Arabic.)  Morphologically, it means that is a genitive, namely of the noun comitatus (minus the macron) ‘a retinue’. 
The phrase posse comitatūs, as used in traditional English law, was shortened in America to posse and used as a noun, in the sense familiar from cowboy movies (“round up a posse”).  But in origin, and in the Latin phrase, posse is in fact a verb.

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In all likelihood, what the ADL told the Latin-Challenged L.A. reporter was “power of the county”:  our word county does derive ultimately from Latin comitatus.   Our word country is, oddly, completely unrelated, deriving rather from Latin contra ‘against, opposite’;  for the semantic development, compare German Gegend ‘area’ vs. gegen ‘against’.

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[Flash update!]  Dr. Massey -- Latinist and legal scholar, in addition to [classified] -- currently operating behind enemy lines, managed to smuggle-through a Comment, which you can read  below.

1 comment:

  1. Just a little more background on the Latin and its implications to the current discussion. Posse is the infinitive, simply 'to be able'. I joke with my Latin students that all infinitives in Latin end is -re except the ones that don't. By this, I mean that all but four end in -re, posse being one of them.

    The Latin word comes means 'count', as in Count Dracula (hey, I'm in Romania right now, it's the example that comes to mind. And just as 'county' is the domain of a 'count', comitatus is the domain of a comes. Comitatūs (macron over the u) is the genitive singular. So the phrase means 'to have power over (of) a county'. And this is what the Commonlaw concept described--the ability when necessary for the county authority (sherrif, interestingly borrowed from Arabic shariif), to muster forces.

    And so, you just gotta love language. Trailer trash, not so much.