Sunday, December 21, 2008

No one is born unfranchised

In a recent post John McIntyre writes

I came across a sentence in James McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief that referred to disfranchised African-Americans. To enfranchise is to give someone the franchise, the vote. To deny someone the vote is to disfranchise. The more common term in use is disenfranchise — which would suggest taking the vote away after it had been given. I’m not going to grow red in the face and pound my fist on the desk over this one — it’s not worth it. But it gladdens the heart to see a writer use a word in a precise sense.

Oh that he could move just a little farther away from his lightest of censures. I disagree with this good-natured judgment regarding these forms on several grounds.

I disagree with his judgment of precision. Praising the precise use implicates the use of disenfranchise as less precise. It is of course not so. The precision lies within the nuanced intention of the writer/speaker and the understanding of the reader/listener. A change in meaning dulls not the edge of meaning.

But the morphological premise of his argument is shaky anyway. To franchise is just as much to grant rights as is to enfranchise. So disenfranchise no more means to take away a previously held right than does disfranchise. And if we want to look at the history of the words (which is relevant by the agreed terms of a discussion of language change) disfranchise has meant, and still often means, to deprive of rights held prior.

The prefix en- doesn't give enfranchise any further derived meaning. It's probably from the Old French enfranchiss- and not simply formed from the addition of en- to the English verb franchise. Enfranchise means the same thing as franchise and has historically meant the same thing.

What Mr McIntyre seems to want is a morphology that compositionally derives a sense of deprivation or keeping from. Something that could be accomplished by a prefix like un- which would indicated the state of not having been affected in the way indicated by the verb. Unfranchised and Unenfranchised are both attested by the OED with only a few citations.

The prefix dis- on either word could be considered equally problematic if we read the derived meanings as an undoing of a previous state. The 6th definition given in the OED is having the sense of undoing or reversing the action or effect of the simple verb. In these words the state would be having certain officially recognized rights. And as Mr McIntyre says, this would suggest taking the vote away after it had been given.

But I suggest that those un- forms are not only superfluous, they are incorrect. The dis- prefix is not merely acceptable despite it's compositional meaning, it is in fact more accurate. The sense of reversing is important in the use of the the terms. As I hear and try to use the words, they indicate that certain inalienable and inherent rights and freedoms have been taken away by institutions that don't respect all people equally.

To put it most simply: disfranchisement and disenfranchisement is precisely what happened to the slaves who used to have freedom and rights. These were taken away from them. If we believe the words of our founding documents then we also believe in G-d given rights.

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