Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, Dec 03, 2004
Columns - Coming to Terms
Talk of court news: Who loses and who wins
Being litigious is perhaps a sign of evolution, so we have no choice but to come to terms with courts. The word has many meanings. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines `court' as a body of people before whom judicial cases are heard. Portia says in The Merchant of Venice: "He hath refused it in the open court." In the same play, Bassanio announces, "Yes, here I tender it for him in the court; yea, twice the sum."
"An official assembly for the transaction of judicial business," is how Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary also explains, but that comes only third, after "the residence or establishment of a sovereign or similar dignitary," and "a manor house or large building surrounded by usually enclosed grounds." In Pericles, Prince of Tyre there is "that vast tennis-court" and elsewhere, "I came unto your court for honour's cause," obviously not for playing.
Court can mean the judge too, the authority that presides over a court. For kings and queens, court refers to the whole entourage of ministers and officials, including the coterie and flatterers, who scuttle around. "The queen being absent, `tis a needful fitness that we adjourn this court till further day," from King Henry VIII is a formal deferment of business, for time ticks often unhurriedly in courts. As pointing to a place, court or courtyard is an open area enclosed by walls, a roofless place within a building. It is not unusual to come by an apartment block with a `court' appendage, though you may not find the flats built around an open space, as suggested. "Without the inner gate were the chambers of the singers in the inner court," is a line from the Old Testament, Ezekiel, Chapter 40, where there are more mentions of court, such as, "an hundred cubits long, and an hundred cubits broad, foursquare."
Court is a 13th Century word, Encarta informs, "from Anglo-Norman curt, ultimately from Latin cohort-, the stem of cohors `enclosed space, retinue.'" Online Etymology Dictionary elaborates: "1175, from O.Fr. curt, from L. cortem, acc. of cors (earlier cohors) `enclosed yard,' and by extension (and perhaps by association with curia `sovereign's assembly'), `those assembled in the yard; company, cohort,' from com- `together' + stem hort- related to hortus `garden, plot of ground'."
Cohort was "the ancient Roman military unit, comprising six centuries, equal to one tenth of a legion," as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary explains, but it can mean an accomplice too, despite the word's legal connections. Interestingly, for language lovers, yard has its origins, among other things, in Sanskrit ghra or `house'. And courtyards used to have a cloth door, or curtain, again deriving from Latin cortem.
To court is to be involved with romantically, usually as a prelude to marriage; `dated' says the dictionary, probably because people are more comfortable with `date' than court. The Bard would offer tips in The Merchant of Venice: "Be merry, and employ your chiefest thoughts to courtship and such fair ostents of love." When someone is courting, he or she is going great lengths to win favourable attention, but there is an altogether different meaning of `inviting misfortune' as when courting arrest. Ironically, such people often grin and wave before getting into police vans.
There is what is called `courtly love' between a knight and a married noblewoman. Court card is not what the judge keeps close to his chest, but king, queen and jack as playing card. Court shoe is a woman's plain, lightweight shoe with a low-cut upper and no fastening. Court bouillon is a stock made from wine and vegetables and used in fish dishes. Court plaster is adhesive sticking made of silk and used in those days by ladies at court for beauty spots. From Italian cortigiana, the feminine of cortigiano `courtier,' is courtesan, meaning literally `a woman of the court', but a prostitute, "especially one with wealthy or upper class clients" in dictionaries.
Courtesy, or politeness, demands that we don't bring in such things when talking about court, but courtesy is from Old French cortesie. Is courtesy `a turncoat,' you may wonder when reading Much Ado About Nothing? There is adverse opinion in Timon of Athens, where Apemantus says: "Methinks, false hearts should never have sound legs, thus honest fools lay out their wealth on court'sies." We see temple disputes land in courtrooms. "But the court which is without the temple leave out and measure it not:" New Testament. "You told me you salute not at the court, but you kiss your hands: that courtesy would be uncleanly, if courtiers were shepherds," is Shakespeare packing three `court's in As You Like It.
There are many idioms and usages in which `court' takes part. Thus, when `the ball is in your court,' the next move is yours. Taking legal action is `going to court.' You hold court when surrounded by a circle of admirers. Disputes can be settled `out of court', as mr Phaneesh Murthy recently did for $8,00,000 to get out of the second sexual harassment lawsuit. If you `pay court to someone', you are trying win somebody's favour by showering flattery. When what you say is ridiculed and, therefore, not considered seriously, there is a case of being `laughed out of court'.
It may not be advisable to laugh about the court, inside or outside, unless you want to incur the wrath of judges that may befall you as `contempt of court'!
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