Protests and Protestants
Posted: 02 May 2013 10:30 AM   [ Ignore ]
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On a recent language log post, Mark Liberman noted, in passing, that when Queen Gertrude observes that the Player Queen “doth protest too much, me thinks,” this does not, as modern readers usually assume, mean that the Player Queen is objecting so loudly and forcibly that the opposite of what she is saying is likely true, but, rather, that she is promising to do too much (i.e., by promising to never remarry if she is widowed).  Protest, is said to have meant, in Shakespeare’s day, a solemn declaration, a vow, or a promise. Liberman quotes a Wikipedia article for this, and Wikipedia cites this article from e-notes.com, which, as far as I can tell, does not, itself, have any citations.  The Wikipedia article suggests, and the e-notes article expressly states, that the “object/reject/denounce” sense of “protest” did not arise until after Shakespeare’s time.  FWIW, even if we assume for the sake of argument that “protest” had taken on a sense of “disagree with” by Shakespeare’s age, I am persuaded that Gertrude was using the word “protest” in the solemn declaration / vow sense based on the context in which she used it.  But I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare was making use of both the “object to” and “solemnly declare” senses of “protest”, and making a pun of sorts.  Of course, for that to be a possibility, the “object to” sense of “protest” would have to have existed at that point.

Another LL commenter noted that this sense of “protest” (vow, promise, declaration) also likely was the basis for “Protestant”: the point of the term was that the Protestants were affirming their belief in the validity of Luther’s theses, rather than objecting to or denouncing the teachings or authority of the Catholic Church.

The latter claim, I think, is not entirely right.  At least per dictionary.com, “Protestant” arose (in English, anyway) in 1539, and it originally referred to the German princes and free cities who declared their dissent from the Diet of Speyer, which, itself, denounced Luther.  “Protestant” later expanded to mean any Lutheran, then any adherent of the Reformation in Germany, then to any member of the Reformation.  So, the term Protestant referred to somebody who had solemnly declared something (namely, dissent from the Diet of Speyer) and also to a person who had objected to something (namely, the Diet of Speyer).  But which would have been understood to be the driving force behind the term: the public support for something (which was only coincidentally a rejection of something in this case) or the denouncing of something (which, in this case, was done publicly)? 

The dictionary.com entry for “protest” seems to support e-notes’s claim that protest, as in “object to”, arose after Shakespeare’s day.  It says that “protest” is first recorded in English in 1340 as a noun meaning a “solemn declaration”, and that the verb is attested to in 1440 as “to declare or state formally.” The meaning “statement of disapproval” is said to be first recorded in 1751.  However, it seems to me that “statement of disapproval” is a fairly specific gloss on the term, and I can’t help but wonder if “protest” could have taken on a looser sense of “disagree with” at some point before 1751.

A final speculative note: is it possible that “Protestant” helped nudge “protest” along in taking on a sense if “disagree with”, given the former’s historical referent (an objection to the Diet of Speyer)?

[ Edited: 02 May 2013 10:49 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 02 May 2013 11:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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We still have the phrase “to protest one’s innocence”, which obviously does not mean to complain about or object to it.

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Posted: 02 May 2013 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Right, and, in fact, Dictionary.com lists that as a usage where the original sense of protest is preserved.  I have to admit that I had always parsed the idiom as “to protest that one is innocent [in the face of accusations or suggestions that one is not]” which, I now realize, was a misguided reanalysis of the idiom stemming from ignorance as to the relevant meaning of the word.

[edited to remove false claim that dictionary.com cites the OED re: “protest one’s innocence”.]

[ Edited: 02 May 2013 12:41 PM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 02 May 2013 12:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Harold Jenkins, editor of the Arden Hamlet , who died a decade or so ago at the ripe old age of 90, glosses the Queen’s line not at all. Few men knew their Shakespeare better and he is quick elsewhere in the play to pick up the slightest difference between Elizabethan and modern meanings, often with copious annotation. I am unpersuaded that the word is being used in another sense.

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Posted: 02 May 2013 12:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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In case anybody is interested, here is a link to the LL article.. And here’s the link to the dictionary.com entry on protest.  (The stuff I am referring to is towards the end of the entry, in a section called “Word Origin & History”.)

[ Edited: 02 May 2013 12:53 PM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 03 May 2013 02:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The OED agrees that the “dissent” sense of protest arose after Shakespeare. It uses the line from Hamlet as a citation for “3.b. intr. To make a formal or emphatic declaration or statement.”

Protestant arose from the cognate German verb and was then imported into English, so you can’t take the development of the English verb and use it to determine what the protest in Protestant originally meant. But the conclusion that it means “declare” rather than “dissent” is correct. The German is also in the “formal declaration” sense, as those who objected to the Diet of Speyer affirmed, “so protestieren und bezeugen wir hiermit √∂ffentlich vor Gott” (thus we hereby protest and testify openly before God).

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Posted: 03 May 2013 06:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I was wondering if the history of “protest” had anything to suggest abouth the well-known different forms that the verb “protest” has taken in BrE and AmE to mean (the OED definition of the BrE version) “to express collective disapproval or dissent publicly” and (the OED definition of the AmE version) “to make the subject of a public protest or demonstration”, so that in BrE the verb is intransitive and we can only “protest against” (or “about") something, while in AmE the verb is transitive and demonstrators or objectors “protest” something.

The OED doesn’t seem to offer many clues, except to show that “protest against” dates back to at least 1550, so it doesn’t seem to be the case that AmE has preserved any sort of older usage of the original verb with the transitive form. I wonder if, in fact, the AmE usage of “protest” as a verb actually comes from a slightly different tributary to the BrE word, and the American verb “protest” represents the verbing of that take on the noun “protest” meaning “any action, act, or statement expressing emphatic objection to or dissent from something”, which the OED dates to the 1640s. The BrE usage, on the other hand looks to come from an older, intransitive use of the original verb, with “against”, from 1550 or before, meaning originally, according to the OED, “to make a formal (often written) declaration against a proposal [or] decision.” So we end up with apparently identical verbs with apparently identical meanings, but one, because of the way it was derived from a noun, transitive and the other not ...

On the third hand, unravelling all the different and often very similar usages of noun and verb is probably (a) impossible and (b) fairly pointless ...

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