It is the queen’s prerogative to grant a prorogation

What does it mean when newspapers say Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament, and why did his actions set off a constitutional crisis?


Late last month, British newspapers were full of a word unfamiliar to Americans. Britain’s new prime minister prorogued Parliament and set off a constitutional crisis. Some members of Parliament tried to prevent the prorogation by holding the speaker down in his chair, since only when he rose would it take effect. On Sept. 24, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom declared the prime minister’s move illegal. 

Prorogation might appear to be some divisive, dangerous thing, but on its own it is only a temporary suspension of Parliament. The controversy here arose from its timing, as it stopped members from debating before another Brexit deadline.

Technically, the prime minister cannot himself prorogue Parliament. He must ask the queen to do it, as it is her prerogative. And here we get to the subject of this week’s column. Prorogation and prerogative share the same root, the Latin rogare, which means “to ask” or “to request.” It turns out that rogare can be paired with a number of prefixes to make common, and not so common, English words.

Pro- can mean several things, but in our case it signifies “in front of, publicly.” This is the least helpful of the prefixes, since pro- + rogare gives us something like “public requesting,” which has little connection to prorogation’s definition today. But pre- means “before,” and it is much easier to see how “to ask before” (pre- + rogare) became prerogative, a special right or privilege.   

Adding the prefix ad- (“to oneself”) to rogare creates something like “to ask for oneself.” The “d” here eventually became an “r” and produced the verb arrogate (“to claim or seize without justification”) and the adjective arrogant. I love that, etymologically speaking, arrogant people, who believe themselves to be superior, are just greedy, “asking for themselves.”   

De- indicates “away from,” so a derogatory term “takes away from” the reputation of someone or something. The adjective means “expressive of a low opinion, disparaging,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. Inter- signifies “between,” and “to ask between” is not a bad description of the systematic interviews known as interrogations

Surrogate started off as subrogate, with sub- indicating “in place of another.” The word’s roots literally mean “ask in place of another,” which is the definition in Merriam-Webster: “one appointed to act in place of another ... a substitute.”  

These are the more common words derived from rogare. I’d like to end, appropriately, with a suffix. Rogare + -itate (“implying intense or repetitive activity”) gives us rogitate, “to make persistent entreaties.” I think rogitation deserves wider currency, since it captures an experience familiar to parents: “Are we there yet?” and “Can I have a cookie?”

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