Q&A: Succession vs secession

is it succession or secession?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're succeeding…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been enjoying the TV show Succession lately. But I have a question?

A: Is it about corporate law? Because we really can’t help you with that.

Q: No, it’s about the difference between “succession” and “secession”.

A: Oh, okay. Yes, there is definitely a difference. Succession is all about a sequence and things coming one after another. This might be events or people – such as royalty in line to the throne.

Q: Or in the case of the TV show, children taking over the family business?

A: Exactly.

Q: And “secession”?

A: It’s the act of seceding – what Macquarie describes as to withdraw formally from an alliance or association, as from a political or religious organisation.”

Q: So like the South attempting to secede from the rest of the Union in the American Civil War?

A: Well, yes. But they did not succeed.

Q: Because Spiderman turned up, yeah?

A: No, you’re thinking of Captain America: Civil War.

Q: Ah yep, so I am. But why does “succeed” have two meanings? For example, when Prince Charles succeeds Queen Elizabeth II, he will succeed at becoming the monarch.

A: Well, the noun “succession” came first – arriving in English in the early 1300s from Old French and earlier Latin successio, meaning following after.

Q: I guess they would have needed to invent a word – they were going through quite a lot of King Edwards and Henrys at the time.

A: Quite. Anyway, initially it only referred to succeeding someone by inheritance. The idea of a succession of events in time or simply any sequence not family related didn’t come along for another hundred years.

Q: And what about the verb “succeed”?

A: It turned up in the late 1300s, directly from Old French “succeder” meaning to follow after or take the place of. It was followed by the noun “successor”.

Q: So I guess the saying back then was, “If at first you don’t succeed, you probably weren’t the first born child”…
A: Haha, yep! However, when the meaning finally did expand beyond family in the early 1400s, we got the adjective “successive”. For example, “We won five successive games”.

Q: Okay, so they all relate to succession. But what about the victory vibes of “succeed”? When did they show up?

A: Well, they were always there in some way. To “succeed” already referred to going from under, rising up or ascending. Such as “ascending the throne” to become King or Queen.

Q: Yeah, good point.

A: So, all that happened is that “succeed” happened to branch away from the idea of a sequence to also wear the “prosper or be victorious” hat. To “succeed” in this way was recorded from the late 1400s.

Q: And “success”?

A: Despite looking like “succession”, it wasn’t related to that – instead it’s the direct result of succeeding. “Success” as a desired outcome turned up about 1580, as did the adjective “successful”. It took much longer for a person who was successful to be referred to as a “success” – only noted from the 1880s. “The team was a success after winning all their games.”

Q: That’s quite the success story.

A: Actually, the term “success story” was first used in 1902.

Q: So, to recap, “succession” came first – a sequence that also gave us “succeed”, “successor” and “successive”. Then the victorious meaning of “succeed” turned up, giving us “success” and “successful”.

A: That’s right! Very succinct.

Q: So “secession” is actually quite different.

A: It certainly is.

Q: Why the confusion then?

A: Well the similar spelling and sound of “succession” and “secession” is the likely culprit, along with the fact that neither are used very often.

Q: True.

A: Also consider the meaning of “precede” – to come before. It is effectively the opposite of “succeed” but some might assume the opposite was “secede” due it looking similar

Q: Well, I think you’ve succeeded in answering this one.

A: And next week’s topic will succeed this one!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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