• posse •
pah-see • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A body of able-bodied men, usually armed, called together by the sheriff of a county when necessary in the pursuit of his duties. 2. A group of anything, usually hostile.
Notes: After the meaning of this word wandered away from its original sense (definition 1.) to its new sense (definition 2) back in the 17th century, it was originally used only if the group it referred to were hostile. However, today it is used when hostility is not implied, 'a posse of questions', 'a posse of friends', 'a posse of monkeys swinging happily overhead'. It is a lexical orphan: no relatives except those distant ones mentioned below in the Word History.
In Play: Posses in the Old West are generally portrayed in movies as lawless: "The posse caught up with Carver Mupp at a bar in the neighboring town, and strung him up on the way back to New Monia." However, not all posses today are hostile: "Rip Rorin came in with a posse of hangers-on befitting a rock star of his caliber."
Word History: Today's word began as the first word in a Medieval Latin phrase, posse comitatus "force of the county", containing posse "power, strength, body of men" + comitatus "of the county, of the territory of a count". In classical Latin posse was used only as a verb meaning "can, be able, have power". Like English can, this word was irregular in that it had three forms: possum, potui, posse. We can see it in the English borrowings possess and possible, but also potent and potential. Latin inherited this root from Proto-Indo-European poti- "powerful; lord", for we find it in the oldest Indo-European language, Sanskrit patih "lord". Again it occurs in Persian pasha "sultan" from an earlier padishah made up of Old Persian padi- "powerful" + shah "king". (Now let's all thank Mark Bailey for making possible today's Good Word by suggesting it in the Alpha Agora.)
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