Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The term recess was in the UK news this week as the government floated a proposal to bring forward MPs’ summer break by five days, only to drop it less than 24 hours later after a furious backlash. The suspicion that the motive behind sending parliamentarians back to their constituencies early was a desire to avoid any further embarrassing splits and near- or actual defeats was borne out by a series of votes on EU withdrawal legislation which the government won by the skin of its teeth.

In this meaning, recess is usually used to refer to the work of parliaments and courts, which are also said to sit to do their work and to rise from it, unlike ordinary mortals who just turn up and leave, or perhaps clock in and out. The word comes from the Latin ‘recessus’, from ‘recedere’ meaning ‘go back’, the same root as the verb recede. The noun has been in use in English since the 16th century, but the related verb only since the 19th.

In American English recess is a period between lessons in school when students can rest or play; the British term is break. A recess is also a space in a room where part of a wall is further back than the rest of it.

Recess has a couple of figurative meanings linked to this physical one: the recesses of something are the parts you cannot see because they are hidden or dark; the recesses of your mind or feelings are the parts you keep hidden from others. Tales have been emerging of skulduggery on the part of government whips, no doubt carried out in the darkest recesses of the Palace of Westminster, so perhaps it is time they all went home and cooled off. Like the fictional but utterly plausible Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards, I couldn’t possibly comment.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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