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Domesday

Pronounced /ˈduːmzˌdeɪ/Help with IPA

On 24 November 1997, as part of its new policy of openness, the British government published a detailed schedule of all the property and goods it owns (as a sign of the times it is available on CD-ROM as well as in a 550-page book). It lists about 300 billion pounds worth of valuables, including foreign embassies, paintings, landholdings and miscellaneous goods.

The formal title of this document is the Register of National Assets but the press has decided, in one of its periodical fits of concerted mild inaccuracy, to call it the New Domesday Book or Domesday Book II. The listing is certainly wide-ranging, but it has only a little in common with the original Domesday Book, which was ordered by William I in 1085 to assess the wealth of England for possible taxation purposes. Nobody is proposing to tax items on the Register; it’s more probable that some of them will be sold off to raise cash for the Treasury.

In origin, Domesday is just a Middle English spelling of doomsday, a name which only came to be applied to the survey a century after its compilation, at first facetiously as being an unavoidable and final judgement (contemporaries called it “the description of England”). A doom was originally a statute, decree or judgement (especially applied to the day of the Last Judgement in Christian theology, as in the crack of doom, and doomsday itself). There had earlier been doombooks, codes of laws, particularly the one said to have been compiled by King Alfred at the end of the ninth century. The doom-settle or doom seat was in early medieval times the place of judgement in a court of law. Later doom came to refer more generally to one’s fate or destiny, often with a sense of evil befalling one.

It’s closely related to the verb deem, which first came into the language with the sense of pronouncing judgement or acting as a judge; later it weakened to mean expressing an opinion or considered view and is now rather a formal word. It’s also, if you go back far enough, linked to do. The Russian Duma (/ˈduːmə/ Help with IPA), an elected council, is also related to it, as is Dáil (/dɔɪl/), the name for the lower house of the Irish parliament.

The English suffix -dom is another cousin, which first meant a jurisdiction, an area over which some official had the power of asserting his doom, such as a kingdom, but which later evolved to mean some condition or state, such as freedom or wisdom. Yet another — though much more distant — relative is theme, which in Greek derives from the same root as the English do.

Page created 22 Nov. 1997
Last updated 29 Nov. 1997

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Last modified: 29 November 1997.