Word of the Day: Controvert

Word of the Day

The Dictionary.com Word of the Day for today is controvert. Here is what the website says: “A controvert is not some kind of hybrid of an introvert and extrovert. It is actually a verb that means ‘to argue about; debate; discuss’ and ‘argue against; deny; oppose.’ Controvert does share a root, however, with introvert and extrovert: Latin vertere ‘to turn.’”

The website www.etymonline.com says that the word entered the language around 1600 and that it was probably a backformation from the word controversy. Controversy came into the language in the late 14th century from French, “controversie ‘quarrel, disagreement’ or directly from Latin controversia ‘a turning against; contention, quarrel, dispute,’ from controversus ‘turned in an opposite direction, disputed, turned against,’ from contra ‘against’ (see contra (prep., adv.)) + versus ‘turned toward or against,’ past participle of vertere ‘to turn’ (from PIE root *wer- (2) ‘to turn, bend’).” I’ve talked about backformations before, but here is a reminder: backformation is a process by which new words are created by removing supposed affixes from an existing word.

So, for instance, we have the word burglar, which means someone who breaks into a house to steal something; it is derived from the Germanic word meaning “house,” and comes into English through Anglo-Latin burgolator, which may be a compounding of burg with latro, “thief.” We often derive words and even names by adding an “-er” suffix to a verb, like miller from the verb to mill or driver from to drive (we call these nouns “agent nouns” because the person is an agent of the action). Now you might thing, “But those agent nouns end in “-er” and burglar ends in “-ar,” but you have to remember that language is first spoken and then written. And really the only way we can tell which word was derived from which is by the historical record, by which word appeared in the language first.

So we have the noun controversy, and from that noun we derive the verb form, to controvert. It’s interesting that this process continues, though it takes time for people to adjust to such neologisms. For instance, one can now hear people use the backformation conversate, a backformation from conversation found in the late 1800s, even though there is a perfectly good verb, to converse. Quick aside: the British pronunciation of controversy puts the emphasis on the second syllable.

On this date in 1952, the Slánský Trial (“Trial of anti-state conspiracy centered around Rudolf Slánský”) began in Prague, Czechoslovakia. There were sixteen primary defendants, all members of the Communist Party and all accused of being Trotskyites and Titoites, that is, followers of the disgraced former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky and the Yugoslav leader Josef Broz, known as Tito. This show trial was part of Josef Stalin’s attempt to purge the Communist leadership in the various satellite countries of disloyal elements. All the defendants, having been subject to torture and threats against their families, confessed, and eleven of the sixteen were executed.

What is perhaps even more striking about this show trial is that the defendants were Zionists. According to the wiki, “Apropos of the conspiracy theories of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, prosecutors claimed that a ‘Zionist-Imperialist’ summit had taken place in Washington DC in April 1947 with President Truman, undersecretary of state Dean Acheson, former treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharret in attendance. The conspiracy charged that defendants were acting in accordance with a so-called “Morgenthau Plan” to commit espionage and sabotage against Czechoslovakia for the US in exchange for American support for Israel. Ironically most of the defendants were known to be ardent anti-Zionists.” The truth is that none of the men who were tried had been disloyal to Stalin, but when people with power want to condemn someone, there is often very little stop them.

The use of anti-Semitism in Europe as a way to condemn other people is not unusual. There are those who believe that the Holocaust was some sort of isolated incident, something that happened only because Adolf Hitler was full of self-hate and the German people are without conscience. But anti-Semitism existed in Europe long before Hitler and continued after, even till today. In fact, on this date in 1938, Father Coughlin made the first of many anti-Semitic remarks on his radio show in the USA. Father Coughlin promoted the Russian forgery called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” arguing that Jewish bankers were behind the Bolsheviks, and supported the fascist states of Germany and Italy as opponents of communism.

According to OnThisDate, in 1829 Nicholas I of Russia decreed the expulsion of Jews from Sevastopol and Nikolaev, areas of Ukraine, though the leaders of those areas had the pogrom delayed first to 1832 and then to 1834. Nicholas I is remembered as particularly anti-Semitic, though he was not responsible for creating the Pale of Settlement in Russia—that had happened decades before his reign. But he did decree that all Jewish males, starting at the age of 12, would be drafted into the Russian army.

In our world, people throw around words like racism and bigotry for all kinds of reasons, often just simple disagreements over government policy. People love to argue with ad hominem attacks. But there is one thing that is incontrovertible—anti-Semitism may be subtler today, but it still exists and still motivates people to do horrible things. Well, I say that it is incontrovertible, but some people will controvert over anything.

The image comes from the Maariv newspaper and depicts Rudolf Slánský at the Prague trials.