An American word

The press reported that during a very difficult court case, the foreman of the jury passed a note to the judge asking for a recess.

The judge was infuriated. He took the jury to their room, and there he angrily reprimanded them for knowing only the American word for an adjournment in a court case.

English judges do use the word recess (stressed on the second syllable) but it means something different.

This was perhaps a little harsh: if the jury had not been briefed about procedural words, how would they know the word adjournment? If they did not read books, then where would they have seen or heard it? Any mention in a popular newspaper or a news broadcast would be rare and fleeting.

This happened some twenty years ago, and it may be that the judge’s anger resulted from fear—and the inability to accept one of the greatest social changes of our lifetime.  By the end of the twentieth century, a majority of citizens were getting their information—memes and minimemes, dress sense, speech, taste, beliefs, and vocabulary—not so much from their families, teachers, communities and friends, as from the media.

It has been a significant change, and its result has been to blur the distinction between information, propaganda, fiction and advertising. Now—for example—even some teachers do not understand that no, one does not change one’s teaching methods in order to accommodate a commercial product, however aggressively and persuasively that product is promoted.

There is nothing wrong with the word recess: its pedigree is every bit as good as adjournment, which in any case can have different meanings in other European languages.

As for Americans: they have enriched and revivified the English language—like the two Africans, Apuleius and Augustine, who refurbished the Latin language of their time.