Word of the Week: Corollary

Corollary – Blankety blank

I’m going to start at the very beginning for this word, because its peculiar intrigue lies in the semantics of its transition into the English language. And hopefully a little suspense will liven up your Sunday.

That means winding back to the Roman empire. The late Latin ‘corollarium’ describes money which is ‘paid for a garland or chaplet’ (chaplet: a garland or circlet for a person’s head), a ‘gratuity’. This originally derived from ‘corolla’, the diminutive form (i.e. denoting a smaller version, as the ‘ette’ in ‘kitchenette’, or the German ‘chen’ suffix) of ‘corona’. Both refer to a ‘wreath, crown or chaplet’.

So, any guesses as to what ‘corollary’ meant when it entered late Middle English in the mid-14th century?

Well, here’s a clue: ostensibly, it has very little to do with wreaths and garlands. As a noun, it refers to ‘a proposition that follows from (and is often appended to) one already proved’, or, more generally, ‘a direct or natural consequence or result’. So, for example, ‘the huge increases in unemployment were the corollary of expenditure cuts’.

A secondary sense is ‘forming a proposition that follows from one already proved’, which generates a further sub-meaning of ‘associated or supplementary’, in the sense of confirmation. So, ‘the court did not answer a corollary question’.

In mathematics, it means ‘a proposition that is incidentally proved in proving another proposition’.

So, what possible semantic link is there between wreaths and consequences, garlands and results? I’ll admit I’m open to suggestions here, because I’m struggling to fill in the gap. But I think Oxford Online English Dictionary does give us a clue.

Remember how ‘corollarium’ refers to the money one pays for a garland or chaplet? Well, in late Latin (from what I can gauge from the etymological notes in the OED) this ‘gratuity’ also carried the sense of ‘deduction’. Hence, the modern day ‘consequence’.

Let me know if you have any other interesting ideas to fill in the linguistic gap! (The prize for the most convincing idea is self-satisfaction.)


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