prorogation, prorogue

In September 2019, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the queen to prorogue parliament, that is to discontinue its meetings without formal dissolution, in the run-up to the UK’s Brexit from the European community. The queen granted the request. Prorogation is a commonly used but little noticed parliamentary tool, and in the UK its traditionally used in a pro forma manner in the few days leading up to a new session or just prior to parliament’s dissolution and a new election. But Johnson used it to end debate on Brexit and prevent backbenchers from taking action on Brexit contrary to what he wanted. This particular instance of prorogation is of dubious constitutionality, and, as of this writing, is under review by the UK courts. [24 September: The UK Supreme Court ruled this prorogation of parliament unconstitutional, and parliament will return to session on 25 September as if it had never happened.] But where did the word come from?

The noun prorogation and the verb to prorogue are borrowings from Anglo-Norman French and ultimately from Latin. The Latin verb prorogare means to prolong, defer, extend in office.

Prorogation appears in English at the beginning of the fifteenth century with the now obsolete sense of prolongation or extension. From a Scottish text written c. 1400:

If hit likes the kyng of Skotlond to swere to the prorogacioun of this trewes.

By the middle of that century, the word was being used to mean to postpone or defer. From the Rolls of Parliament for 1453:

The Kyng [...] woll and grauntith to forbere and proroge and to putte in suspence, th’execution of leviyng of the fyndyng of the seid [...] men Archers [...] for the space of ii yeres.

And by 1455 it was being used in the sense of suspending parliament for a brief period:

For asmoche as the holy Fest of Cristemas approchith so nygh..it myght like the said Lieutenaunt and all the Lordes, this present Parliament to proroge, adjorne, or dissolve.


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2007, s. v. prorogation, n. and prorogate, v.

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