I was curious about the etymology of “contract” after remembering that the etymology of “consent” is actually literally “to feel together,” itself a formulation of the Latin “con-” prefix (meaning “with”) and “sentire” (meaning “to feel”). Contract, perhaps unsurprisingly, is much more direct. It is from the Latin “contractus,” which means exactly the same thing in Latin as “contract” means in English today, though it is derived from an even earlier word, “contrahere,” literally, “to draw together.” Curiously, though, there is at least one mention of the term “contract” meaning, “an arrangement to kill someone,” apparently first recorded in 1940 and introduced by the United States “underworld,” according to Etymonline.com. So that’s creepy.

Given all the legalism surrounding the colloquial uses of the word “consent” as synonymous with “permission,” it then occurred to me to look into the etymology of that word. Turns out, permission is taken directly from the Latin “permissio” which is the noun form of the Latin verb “permittere,” which is curiously defined as “let pass, let go, let loose; give up, hand over” as well as the more contemporary “to grant, to allow.”

Both “consent” and “contract” seem to have originated in the late 14th century AD, though clearly the latter has a much more direct root to earlier Roman notions of law. The simultaneous arrival of these derivations suggest that there is some important distinction between the two, then as well as now. On that note, “permission,” did not appear until the early 15th century, and it took several hundred more years until “permit” became a noun meaning “an authoritative document granting certain permissions.” Therefore, the clear connotation of the word “permission” is one in which autonomy is relinquished by the permit’s benefactor, and not obtained as is sometimes thought; that is, the person to whom permission is granted has heretofore “let go or handed over” their autonomy and has merely contracted for its temporary return.

Perhaps this is why I feel so strongly that “it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

At this point I wondered about the early uses of the words, so I asked the Google Books NGram Viewer for a chart that depicted the relative distribution of the various terms, “consent,” “contract” and “permission” across their entire available English corpus from 1500 to 2008. Here’s the result:

As you can see, although each word appears with about the same frequency at first, things begin to diverge radically in the early 1600’s, where usage of the word “consent” spikes to a higher point in the corpus than any of the rest of the words will ever reach. However, a few short decades later, in the 1650’s, use of the word “consent” begins to fall steadily and continues to do so until it is actually the least-used word among all the others, today. Meanwhile, at that same time, the word “contract” begins slow, steady climb, and a similar trajectory can be seen for “permission,” although with less volatility. Finally, in the latter half of the 19th century, “contract” finally surpasses “consent” during a dramatic increase and the same is true when “permission” overtakes “consent” just prior to 1950.

So what happened in the 1600’s that caused such a dramatic spike in occurrence of the use of the word “consent”? Well, one of the most dramatic shifts in global power at that time was the invention of the corporation, specifically the founding of the East India Company in 1600. This new form of combined social and legal organization proved the beginning of the end of feudalism and a radical shift towards what we now call “privatization” and away from the notion of the “commons” (as in common land, or property owned by multiple people rather than a single deed-holder). Indeed, numerous references to “consent” in the period of the word’s spike shown on the graph is a reference to this exact social issue in which the people who were once feudal lords became what we now know of as “landlords,” such as in, “Reasons Against the Enclosing of Commons Without the Consent of the Tenants: Shewing the Tenants Right in the Lords Wasts”, an 18-page treatise published in 1661 seemingly arguing for the continuation of communal property by tenants themselves and against the privatization of the land, using the terms of its day.

By this point it seems clear that the use of “consent” was entangled with legal definitions of property, but the context of the term was vastly different than it is today, wherein there is a clear argument for communal agreement, and rather explicitly against the notion of individual permission-granting. If we go even earlier, the notion of consensus is an explicit characteristic in writings mentioning “consent,” as in the 1588 publication, “Of the Incurable Scepticism of the Church of Rome,” which contains a discussion across several pages about how, exactly, to come to agreement “by consent” which focuses almost exclusively on the number of people involved and how many of them, precisely (in terms described as either “All Mathematically,” i.e., every person, or “All Morally,” i.e., some percentage of the affected), do in fact “consent.” Moreover, “consent” here seems much more a reference to matters of Faith than matters of Law, though clearly the society at the time was undergoing a massive restructuring that would ultimately (at least pretend to) distance the two. Also interestingly, the word “consensus” is itself etymologically related to consent in that its own etymology is directly from the same Latin word which actually means “agreement,” but whose derivation in Latin actually comes from the past-tense construction of “consentire”).

The point here is that the notion of “consent” seems historically entangled with the concept of unanimous, collective thought, a kind of group-feeling (or “group-think”?) that has obvious roots in advocacy against the kind of individuation most frequently invoked by the term today. Even the US government’s founding Declaration of Independence uses a kind of implicit collectivism to describe consent when it states that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” I think the Declaration’s clever sociological sleight of hand here is actually not about consent, because after all the word had always used to mean a form of consensus reality, but rather that it uses consent to institute a legal foundation on which the definition of “unalienable rights” could be founded; ironically, perhaps, declaring only that which is unanimously agreed on as a “right.” Famously, these same men considered only three-fifths of what earlier text might have termed consent by All Mathematically. ;)

I bring up this historical and etymological exploration mostly to muse about the sources of our tragically dissonant cultural dialectic about consent: these things we “have” called “rights” on the one hand, and these things we feel about and with one another, regardless of the “things” that make up our consensus reality. Consent’s cultural relationship to contracts seems less important in light of this history than its relationship to the more general concept of ownership. It’s telling, then, as Graeber notes, to consider that those who argue for the contractual definition of consent have been most keen to describe how we have “permitted” them to own our bodies, even if only between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM, or during the time we spend with them between the sheets.