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Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Contingent originated from the Latin contingere which was a compound of the prefix con, ‘together with’, and tangere, ‘to touch’. The Latin developed into the French contingent in the 14th Century. The word in its current form came from Middle English, and meant ‘something happening by chance’ but developed into referring a person’s share or a quota. It was not until the 18th century that contingent split into the meanings it holds today.  Contingent, in its most literal definition, draws from the roots of the Latin, describing things that touch each other, such a tangent and a curve originating in 1560. At one point contingent also referred broadly to any two or more things that held a connection, but that use is now obsolete. Contingere, as a single word meant in Latin ‘to befall’, in a sense describing instances in which unrelated circumstances could ‘touch’ each other. Contingent holds that meaning as well, but split between many different specific usages.
They are (with the year of first use in brackets) ‘liable to happen or not’ (1400), ‘incidental’ (1747), ‘happening’ (1532, now obsolete), ‘happening by chance; not fixed by necessity or fate’ (1604), ‘subject to accidents; liable to chance or change’ (1703), ‘true only under specific conditions’ as it pertains to philosophy (1588), ‘non-essential’ (1628), ‘dependant on a prior condition’ (1613), ‘conditional’ as it pertains to Law (1710), ‘an accident’ (1548), ‘a possibility of the future’ (1656), ‘a thing contingent or dependent on the existence or occurrence of something else’ (1848), ‘the proportion that falls to any person upon a division’ (1728), ‘a force contributed to form part of an army or navy’ (1728), and ‘a contribution’ (1817).

It is a word with a wealth of meanings, many that seem to overlap. This wealth of varying meanings that are all so similar and yet so different speak to the complexities of describing the concept of things happening. Why do things come together? Does a particular event have a reason? Does the event happen regardless of logic? Is it the event where things come together what is important, or is it the things coming together? What are the chances of something happening? These are all vague conceptual questions, but they all serve, in their own way, to explain the intricacies and nuances of the original Latin meaning ‘coming together’. The reason why there are so many definitions for contingent may simply be because the Latin root was such a broad, all-encompassing word to describe an abstract concept. English has had a thousand years to try and work out what contingent means, and this evolution of the word continues, with terms such as contingent valuation in economics. Whether contingent becomes even more complicated or reverts to a single meaning is anyone’s guess. However, regardless of what the word will become, the definitions will all come back to answering the original question, inferred in the Latin root: what does it mean for something to happen?


contingent, adj. and n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 14 November 2012 <http://dictionary.oed.com/>.

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