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Mind your language

Word of the week: ‘prorogue’

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

It was most unlooked-for that a king should ally with Whig politicians to seek parliamentary reform, but that was what William IV did when Earl Grey was trying to carry the Great Reform Bill in 1831. When Grey apologised for putting him in a hurry, the Sailor King exclaimed: ‘Never mind that. I am always at single anchor.’

Parliament was bedlam, Peel seemed ‘about to fall into a fit’, the Speaker had ‘a face equally red and quivering with rage’. The Lords had tabled a motion to stop the King dissolving parliament. To head them off from infringing his prerogative, William decided to prorogue  it in person. When told by the Master of the Horse that the state coachman was absent, William cried: ‘Then I will go in
a hackney coach.’


I had seen that quotation given with hackney cab for hackney coach, and I wondered if it was an early use of cab. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the next year, 1832. He could certainly not have said, like Eliza Doolittle in 1914, ‘Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.’ Although electric-powered cabs were introduced to London in 1897 (switching exhausted batteries for recharged ones in two or three minutes), the name taxi or taxi-cab, taken from the meter, did not arrive until 1907. Anyway, the story about William IV and the hackney coach was given by John Cam Hobhouse (Lord Broughton), who was there on the day.

My friendly and learned neighbour in the interior of this magazine, Dr Peter Jones, tells me that the Latin prorogo does not mean ‘suspend’ but ‘postpone’. Seneca talks of mala inevitabilia aut quae minui possunt aut qua prorogari, ‘those unavoidable evils which can be lessened or postponed’. All parliaments are prorogued or dissolved sooner or later, but these necessary evils are eventually opened once more. Parliament is not opened by any formula of words, merely by the monarch summoning the Commons to the Lords. The Queen ends her speech: ‘My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels,’ but, even if she didn’t, the new session would have begun.


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