Yesterday, Donald Trump recognised (or recognized, if you prefer) Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political this time. There’s nothing I can add to the numerous international condemnations of this move anyway. Once I’d finished shaking my head and sighing with resignation, I began to think about how apparently strange it is to use the verb to recognise in this way.
If you’re in any way familiar with Latin or Romance languages, the structure of the word is fairly logical. The re- is the standard prefix meaning again, added to the Latin cognoscere (to know). When you think about how we usually use the word, it makes sense. Imagine you’re watching a film, and you recognise an actor. You know who they are because you’ve seen them before, and now you’re seeing them again, and know them, again.
Which is why this second main meaning of to recognise, to officially acknowledge, seems a little funny. The whole point of officially recognising something is that it’s for the first time. The United States is now the first country to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. No-one had ever acknowledged it as such before, so how can he recognise it?
In a way though, it is kind of logical, and some of the words that slid out of Trump’s mouth yesterday hint at this logic. He said that he was simply recognising reality, suggesting that he at least had already considered Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. To recognise in this sense then means to publically know something that you’ve already privately or secretly known. The knowledge was already there, but by recognising it, you’re knowing it again, in a public sense.
You may have noticed by the way, that to recognise is a very strongly Latin-influenced word. It entered the English language around the early 15th century, and replaced the pre-existing verb to acknow. This long-gone word might seem familiar, because in this post I’ve already used a related, still-relevant word which also means to recognise: to acknowledge. When you think about, it seems strange that we use to acknowledge as a verb, and not to acknow, because to know is a verb and knowledge is a noun.
To acknowledge is in fact a remnant of the Middle English verb knoulechen, which meant to acknowledge, and survived, even as to acknow disappeared, and knowledge became established as a noun. Sadly though, knowledge has never become established in Donald Trump’s head.