School is in SESsion

Without a meaning of its own, ses-* is less a prefix than a commonplace starter-offer; the word session alone has some twenty shades of meaning. Sesqui-, on the other hand, is a Latin prefix meaning “an addition of a half” – or, put another way, “one and a half.” An example is sesquicentennial, a celebration of a 150-year anniversary.

Herewith one fourteen-letter (and little-known) ses- word and three that are long forgotten.


Horace, Ancient Rome’s most eloquent wordsmith, coined a term for “words a foot and a half long” – sequipedalia verba (ped- being Latin for “foot”). Today the adjective sesquipedalian describes a word with many syllables – to choose one drawn-out example, antidisestablishmentarianism, a political philosophy opposed to the separation of church and state, especially in nineteenth-century Great Britain in relation to the Anglican Church’s role as the official church of England, Ireland, and Wales. (Long word, long definition!)  Today the adjective is also synonymous with talkative and loquacious, as in “Biff is the most sesquipedalian Episcopalian in the neighborhood.”


This forgotten word had widely divergent meanings. Its earliest use was a shortened form of assess and assessment, the former gaining currency in the mid-sixteenth century and the latter about a hundred years later. in turn, the word came to mean tax and impose, both used as a noun a well as a verb. Five other meanings couldn’t be any farther away from the monetary:

• One definition is “a heap or pile, especially a heap of sheaves stored in a barn and ready for thrashing.”

• The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also defines sess as “each of the sections composing a frame or mould into which the soap is thrown to cool and solidify after the process of fitting” – an explanation which, perhaps for anyone other than a soapmaker, may raise more questions than it answers.

Sess was given six definitions in the English Dialect Dictionary.** One of them – “a great fat woman” – was current in Cornwall and Devonshire in Victorian times and probably found its way into remarks such as this: “Little Louisa went from a skinny lass to a plumpish matron to a sess who could barely fit into a dress.”

• In the sixteenth century, sess was a term for a scrap or morsel left over after a meal. Might the earliest settlers of Jamestown have frequently voiced the word when the colony’s devastating famine of 1609-1610 laid them low?

• Its “morsel” link was tied to the use of  sess to summon pet dogs. The OED records its earliest use as 1606, by Joshua Sylvester in his hugely popular English translation of a 1578 epic poem by the Huguenot poet Guillaume Du Bartas – La Semaine, ou Creation du Monde (The Week, or Creation of the World). The line? Ses, ses … here, Dogs.”


From the Latin sessilis (“sitting down; dwarfed”; “stunted”) came sessile, first used in the mid-seventeenth century to describe animals that were sendtary, fixed in place, or non-ambulatory. A century later it became a botanical term for fruits and vegetables that did not grow on a stalk – so we can assume that a gardener in the Massachsetts Bay Colony would’ve have said something on the order of “Unlike the sessile cabbage yonder, celery leaves are easily plucked.”

The word cropped up as a medical term at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was applied to the cells of the body. An example from a 1904 issue of the British Medical Journal began, “Certain cells which are normally fixed, or sessile cells…”


Given its definition – “to move uneasily; to fidget” – this long-obsolete verb could almost be an antonym for settle. But it wasn’t. And the OED’s first recorded quotation, from 1695, gave the word a third meaning, if only a regional one: “In Kent to sessle about is to change seats very often.”

A modern synonym of sessle in its “fidgety” sense, the word restless, dates all the way back to Old English (449-1100 AD) but had a more literal meaning: “deprived of rest; uneasy in mind or spirit.”

*Not to be confused with the prefix sex-, meaning “six” — as in sextet, sexagenarian, sextant, and so on.

** Check out this century-old part work here.


One Response to School is in SESsion

  • Fred says:

    Glad you’re enjoying RIBF, Jessika. My favorite forum is from the UK: Wordwizard, which attracts visitors from all English-speaking countries. Here’s a link to their main word-usage forum, found in what is called the Clubhouse:

    I hope the responses to posts in Run It By Fred will increase tenfold (or more) over the next few years and become the kind of forum you’re looking for. My site is still very much a work in progress, and at least fifty new posts are waiting in the wings — most in the Book-O-Rama portion of the blue Post-It menu, currently with four free-floating posts which will eventually be slotted into categories with drop-down menus (à la the Blogger’s Buffet). At the moment, duty in my other areas of endeavor is calling too loudly to put RIBF in the front seat, but I trust that in time RIBF will be so fleshed out it will attract the kind of traffic that builds exponentially through word of mouth.

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