If I had to vote on any kind of official “Word of the Week” award, it think it would be, well, would.
This comes after the dual press conference with Trump and Putin in Helsinki, during which Trump said he doesn’t “see any reason why” Russian would have meddled in our election process. Immediately, many Americans took this, among many other things he said, as a signal from Trump that he sides with Russia over US law enforcement organizations.
A couple days later, Trump says that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would,” but didn’t deny any of the other chummy things he said about Putin and Russia in the press conference.
Would is what we language nerds call a modal verb, a word that describes the likelihood or ability of something to do something. Like should, could, and might, would indicates what call the conditional voice, meaning that what we’re saying isn’t necessarily true right now, but the conditions speak to the possibility of its truthfulness.
So, for instance, when Trump says that he doesn’t see why Russian would have interfered with our democratic process, he’s saying that he doesn’t believe that the Russians were likely to do so.
Even though there are at least two dozen federal indictments, and one Russian spy (Mariia Butina) caught red-handed, that argue otherwise.
Would is an Old English word, originally spelled wolde, that also functions as the past tense of the verb will.
But Trump backtracked on his use of would by saying he meant to say “wouldn’t.” Not “would not”, but “wouldn’t.” Which had a few people ask me about contractions this week.
I don’t know too much about how contractions have been used in different languages, especially in the pre-modern and ancient eras. However, as far as I can tell, contractions have been used in English dating back 1500 years or so.
For example, Old English speakers used the word nis as a contraction of ne is, meaning is not. And naefde was used to contract ne haefde, meaning did not have.
And, for our purposes this week, they used the word nolde as a contraction of ne and wolde, meaning would not.
Keen observers will note that in Old English, the adverb ne, or not, comes before the verb wolde, hence the contraction nolde. After the Norman Invasion in 1066 and the influx of French and Latin into Old English, the syntactical placement of verbs and adverbs changed, placing the adverb after the verb in many cases, as we see today in the phrase would not. Indeed, it is thanks to French that English has such freedom in adverb placement in its sentences.
For the most part, these contractions have remained in English for well over a millennia, even though they are spelled differently today, and today we use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter. Keep in mind that punctuation wasn’t really trendy in English until after Chaucer’s time, so you won’t find any apostrophes in Old English contractions.
Contractions were integral to Shakespeare’s writing, naturally, as he was the first English writer to try to capture the lower class speech patterns. This was part of Shakespeare’s brilliance, as he married the speech he heard on the streets with the more royal, courtly, upper class language. In fact, you will likely see more contractions used in Shakespeare’s Early Modern English than you will see today: shan’t, ‘twon’t, ‘tis, and ha’n’t were common back then, but hardly seen in writing today.
But we’re not done, because as I’m writing this column, the Republican administration is backtracking on yet another perceived supporting statement for Russia. At that meeting where Trump delivered his “wouldn’t” statement, a reporter asked if Russia is still targeting the US, and Trump said no.
Which is clearly contrary to what the US intelligence community has concluded.
No is another Old English word, originally spelled na, and is itself a contraction (or perhaps a portmanteau) of two words: ne, which we are familiar with now, and a, meaning ever. So, literally, the word no means not ever. And, yes, even the word never is a contraction of not ever.
This column is beginning to sound like one of Captain Corcoran’s songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.”
Ne is itself a Proto-Indo-European root meaning not; but the a comes from the PIE root aiw, meaning life.
Those roots make no an extremely powerful word. I think Russia needs to hear it more often.