Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

News that President Trump had exercised his powers of clemency to pardon a 63-year-old great-grandmother sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent drug offence got me thinking about this rather infrequent word (only 235 occurrences in our very large corpus, which is a very small number indeed). Clemency, which Macmillan Dictionary labels formal, comes from the Latin ‘clementia’ which means ‘calmness’ or ‘gentleness’. The related adjective clement comes from the Latin adjective ‘clemens’ meaning ‘calm’ or ‘mild’.

While the noun usually refers to a decision not to punish someone harshly, clement is more often used in relation to the weather, when it refers to conditions that are pleasant because they are neither too hot nor too cold: inclement weather, by contrast, is wet, cold or windy, or even all three. Although it is possible to talk about the clemency or indeed the inclemency of the weather, this is rather unusual. The reverse is true of the adjective: it is unusual nowadays to describe a person or their actions as clement.

In the past, Clement was a popular man’s name and one that was given to several Popes and at least one saint: there was a St Clement’s church near where I grew up, and as the popular children’s rhyme has it, the bells of St Clement’s in London say ‘Oranges and Lemons’, though it is not clear which of two churches named after the saint this refers to. As children we used to play the game that accompanies the rhyme, paying little attention to its grisly meaning.

Oranges and lemons lead us neatly to clementines, named it seems after the French priest who around 1900 accidentally grew the hybrid citrus fruit in the garden of his orphanage in Algeria, Father Clement Rodier. Clementine is also a woman’s name, the best known bearer of it probably being the wife of Winston Churchill, or possibly the subject of the popular American folk ballad, Oh My Darling Clementine, which gave its name to the title of a 1946 western directed by John Ford. Not much clemency there.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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