Court by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Court

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about the meaning and history of the word ‘court’.

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Hello and welcome to another episode of English with Stephen. My name’s Stephen Greene and today I have a Word Story episode for you. In my Word Story episodes, I talk about the origin of words and how they have changed over time. In the past, I have talked about where the words ‘boycott’, ‘silhouette’ and ‘guy‘ have come from, as well as looking at words that have come into English from Brazil and India.

Well, today’s Word Story is one that I often tell my students because it is used in so many different contexts. It can be used in architecture, sport, legal English and even when talking about romance. Can you guess what the word is?

If you guessed the word is ‘court’ then you are right! And if you don’t know how ‘court’ can be used for architecture, sport, the law, romance and more, then don’t go away!

All of that, right after this very short break.

I’d like to remind you to go and have a look at my site, I will post lots of pictures on the site for today’s episode so you can see some examples of the things I am going to talk about. Also, you can find a transcript of this episode and all of the past episodes. Transcripts can be really helpful when learning a language as you can read and listen at the same time, so you can check specific words or their spellings. Finally, I have links to my social media where you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. So, go to, that’s S T E P H E N,;

And now, back to ‘court’.

So the origin of ‘court’ comes from Latin. It was originally two words: ‘hortus’ which meant ‘garden’ and ‘com’ which meant together. So you take the ‘c’ from ‘com’ and ‘ort’ from ‘hortus’ and you get ‘cort’.

Originally, it meant an enclosed garden or yard. If something is enclosed it means there are walls or a fence around it, and this is very important for the future meaning of the word. If you imagine a garden with no walls or fence, then you can go anywhere you like. But if there is a wall or a fence all around the garden then everything is together and kept in place. So ‘cort’ was also used to talk about the people who were standing together in a garden or yard.

Today we still use the word ‘courtyard’ to talk about a flat piece of land that is open to the sky but is surrounded by buildings. Sometimes the buildings might be owned by different people and so the courtyard is shared. At other times, all of the buildings are owned by the same, usually rich person, and so the courtyard is private.

Fast forward a few centuries, and move away from Rome to France, and the word is being used there to mean a king’s royal residence, kind of like the way we would use ‘palace’ today. If you think about traditional European palaces, they had a type of square building with a space in the middle that was open to the sky. Or, in other words, a large garden surrounded by walls. And so it is easy to see how the word ‘court’ was used to describe this type of residence.

This is how the word ‘court’ developed most of its modern meanings, through being associated with royal places. For example, if you needed the king to decide something in law, you would go and visit his court to get an answer. After a while, there were too many people who wanted to king to make a decision, so these jobs were given to judges. But the space they used to listen to the arguments was still a court. Indeed, in the UK, we still talk about Royal Courts and Crown Courts with the tradition that the judges are acting on behalf of the monarch.

The Supreme Court in the UK.

There are lots of words and phrases associated with courts in legal English. I will post a link on my site that you can follow to find some of this language, for example, ‘criminal or civil court’, ‘take somebody to court’ and ‘tell the court’. This language is not just for lawyers as it is common for anyone talking about law even in everyday language.

The next meaning for ‘court’ that comes from royalty is as a verb. If you wanted the king, or his advisers, to give you a favourable decision, you might need to spend some time, and money, persuading them that you were deserving of the decision. In other words, you would ‘court their favour’. Nowadays, we might say that the candidates in an election were ‘courting the media’, or they were acting nice to the newspapers and television hoping they would create positive news stories.

This idea has developed, so that if you are doing something that is potentially dangerous, you can ‘court controversy’, ‘court disaster’ or even ‘court death’.

Until recently, if you were ‘courting someone’ it could also mean you were dating or involved romantically with someone. This meaning, however, is not used very much nowadays. It’s the kind of thing that my grandparents’ generation might have used.

The final meaning of ‘court’ that I would like to examine today is a sporting one, although this is also linked to royalty.

King Henry VIII of England is famous for having six wives and splitting England from the Catholic church. Not everyone knows that he was also quite an athlete. His favourite sport was hunting, but when that wasn’t possible, his next choice was often tennis.

A real tennis court

Real tennis was a bit different to modern tennis. The area where you played was surrounded by walls and you could hit the ball against the walls. It was kind of a mix of modern squash and tennis. And the place where they played tennis was called a court. I guess this is because it was an open space in a royal residence that was surrounded by walls.

Today, the game of tennis has changed and so there are no walls surrounding the court, but we still play on a tennis court. In fact, if you play tennis, volleyball, basketball, squash or badminton, you play on a court.

So, those are all of the stories I wanted to tell you about the word ‘court’. But before we finish today, I want to tell you why it is important to think about the different meanings of a word in the way we have today.

It seems that our brains like to make connections with words, and the more connections we have, the easier it is to remember them. Studying individual words and phrases is one way to make lots of connections. We can make it even better by keeping a record of words and phrases like this in a lexical notebook. Back in Episode Six, I talked about how a lexical notebook is the single best thing I ever did to help me learn Portuguese. So, if you would like to know how to start a lexical notebook, and why it is so useful, please go and listen to that episode.

You can find that episode, and all of the others on your favourite podcast app, or go to my site where you will also find the transcript. Don’t forget, I will also post some pictures for today’s episode on my site as well in case you need them, as well as links to other resources associated with the word ‘court’.

Thank you so much for listening. I hope to talk to you again next week. So long!

Useful Links

Uses of ‘court’ as a noun.

Uses of court as a verb.

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