Final Word

ANC permanently in the dock, but ship stays away


With court case upon court case dominating news surrounding the governing ANC, the party seems to be constantly in the proverbial dock.

Scrolling through the news this past weekend, the fact struck me how many court cases, pending-, and threatening court case, all impacting on the fortunes of the African National Congress, are lingering out there – and none of it holding much promise to turn prospects of a party in decline around.

And, then a question popped-up in my mind – how did it happen that the enclosure, or pen in the courtroom in which an accused, defendant, and witnesses appear before the court is called a ‘dock.” Where does the word come from?

It turns out that the word, or term, is not only very versatile, but also has arrived in our vocabulary along a couple of routes, depending on what it is used for.

There are no less than five etymological paths for the word, depending on what it is used for in a particular context.

The word dock can refer to:

  • Most common, a landing enclosure for boats – being the space between two piers or wharves for accommodating a ship while in port;
  • The application in the court environment;
  • The solid or fleshy part of an animal’s tail, as distinguished from the hair, or the part that remains after cutting or trimming a tail;
  • The term used for various weedy plants belonging to the genus Rumex of the buckwheat family;
  • The cooking term, meaning “to pierce with holes,” a practice apparently usually employed in baking biscuits to keep them from swelling up in the oven. This was the last ‘docking’ to be coined, and first used around 1840; and
  • The last one, seemingly the oldest of the lot, dating back to before 1000 in Old English as docce, and as dokke in Middle English. It is also related to Middle Dutch’s docke-, German’s docken-, Old Danish’s dokka, and akin to Middle High German tocke, meaning "bundle or tuft."

Heading for the court

Some sources believe that, in the maritime sense of the word, it can be traced back to Late Latin’s ductia meaning "aqueduct" from Latin ducere "to lead.”

The word landed, so to speak, in English in the early 16th century, originally, borrowed from Germanic roots. The word simply meant the rut or hollow created by a boat lying on a beach at low tide.

The word in the court context, came to us nearly a century later in the late 16th century from the Flemish word dok, ironically meaning rabbit cage or, poultry pen.

In each of its original meanings the word spawned many other applications, figurative meanings, and proverbs. These include:

  • the scene dock, a place in a theatre, near or beneath the stage floor, used for the storage of scenery;
  • if your salary or privileges are cut, it is being docked;
  • if charged of a misstep or in trouble, you can also be figuratively in the dock;
  • there can be a coffee dock in the office;
  • nowadays it can also refer a docking station for electronic devices; and
  • at one time docks were also used to refer to the buttocks or anus, but that has become obsolete; and
  • the dry docks, where ships go for repairs – something which the “good ship ANC” seems to be in dire need of at present.

Final word

The original maritime use of the word surely has no application to the dock the ANC constantly finds itself in. It surely has no association with the old proverb of “the ship has come in” for it, meaning a dramatic turnaround for the good in its fortunes.

by Piet Coetzer

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