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I was recently discussing the word accede with a Spanish colleague of mine and contrasting it against the Spanish verb acceder which has a different, although related meaning. When looking at the etymology of the word it shows ad + cedere (latin) -> accedere (latin) -> accede (late Middle English).

What struck me more though was the fact that the Latin verb cedere means "give way, yield" whereas the English word means "come forward, approach" which seems to be opposite of the original meaning.

Source: https://www.google.com/search?q=define%3A+accede

Yielding a position is the opposite action of approaching a position. Is there any reason why this swap in meaning occurred, or is this just something that happens in language evolution? Could the etymology be incorrect and the root is "ab + cedere"?

  • Are you sure you're reading those google-found definitions right? They all seem to be slight variations on 'yield': "assent or agree to a demand, request, or treaty, synonyms: agree to, consent to, accept, assent to, acquiesce in, comply with, go along with, concur with, surrender to, yield to, give in to, give way to, defer to". The 2nd definition, "assume an office or position." could be read as 'acquiescing to a request to hold an office" – Mitch Apr 25 '18 at 13:45
  • @Mitch i was just going with the Google provided section at the top of the results. Not the results themselves. – Sandy Chapman Apr 25 '18 at 13:47
  • Sandy, I copied what I saw of 'the Google provided section at the top' in my comment. Is that what you saw also? But what I saw also agreed with the results lower from M-W and... Oh I just saw [the entry at Wiktionary ](en.wiktionary.org/wiki/accede) which gives the first entry as "(archaic, intransitive) To approach; to arrive, to come forward. ". 1) Wiktionary is not a trustworthy source: it has a lot of good stuff, but also a lot of bad and you never know what you're reading is which, unless you compare with other sources. – Mitch Apr 25 '18 at 14:06
  • 2) Assume this entry is correct; note that it is archaic, meaning no one uses it anymore. And the other entries are still more common. – Mitch Apr 25 '18 at 14:07
  • @Mitch in that case I think this can closed since it's based in a flawed premise. – Sandy Chapman Apr 25 '18 at 14:08
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First, the descriptive history, then an attempt at explanation.

The OED gives definitions in historical order, the meaning that appears first comes first, and later meanings come in order. Other dictionaries, like learner's dictionaries, may choose other orderings like most common meaning first.

The first entry for 'accede' is

  1. intr. To come forward, approach, or arrive (at a place or state). Also: to come into being. Obs. First attestation 1465.

No one uses 'accede' in this way now (therefore the designation 'obsolete') but it is closely related to 'accession' as in OED's fifth entry, taking on a position or role.

OED's third entry accords with the current usual meaning of 'to yield':

  1. intr. To assent, agree, give way. Usually with to, †unto. First attestation 1534

So currently, the English word has roughly the same meaning as the Spanish version.

During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, all the European countries were, along with expanding literacy, expanding their vocabulary, a lot of it with Latin origins (easier for the Romance languages). The etymology for 'accede' at OED (etymonline's version, which is usually taken from OED, strangely only addresses meaning 1) is complicated.

It was borrowed, as is usual for such formal latinate terms, from Anglo-Norman/Middle French (the language of the 1066 conquerers) where it meant accept or agree, close to 'yield', the modern English or Spanish meaning.

So in some sense your question is really about why English borrowed the meaning 'to come forward, approach' first but then later went back to the classical Latin/French/Spanish version.

'Why' questions are hard to answer definitively (there's usually no reliable evidence about internal motivation), so I can speculate that probably the first English scholar (most likely well-versed in Latin) used the word very metaphorically, the Latin 'accede' meaning 'yield' being used expansively to mean to approach, the other person allowing one to approach. This is a bit of a stretch, but I think no more of a stretch than using 'received' to mean 'accepted as authoritative'


For quick reference, OED's etymology entry for 'accede'.

< Anglo-Norman and Middle French acceder (French accéder ) to approach (1270 in Old French in an isolated attestation, subsequently from 1470), to accept (something), to agree (to something) (14th or 15th cent. in Anglo-Norman; this sense is unparalleled in continental French until later: see below) and its etymon classical Latin accēdere to go or come (to), draw near, approach, to enter, to resort (to), to attach oneself, join, to agree, assent, to be added, constitute an addition, accrue, in post-classical Latin also to attain to (a dignity) (11th cent. in a British source), to perform, fulfil (an office) (12th cent. in a British source) < ac- ac- prefix + cēdere cede v. Compare Italian accedere (a1250). The (continental) French verb is first attested later in uses corresponding to senses 2 and 3, and originally as a legal term: 1731 in accéder à with specific reference to agreeing to a treaty (compare the similar use in quot. 1830 at sense 2), 1771 with specific reference to agreeing to a contract of sale. The general sense ‘to accept, agree to (something)’ is first attested in French in 1790.

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