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Changing times cloud the issue

PETER TRUDGILL on a word with many different meanings in the past 700 years

A French sign warning pedestrians of a dead end

The word issue started being used in English in around 1300, having
originally being brought to Britain in the Anglo-Norman language by William the Conqueror’s followers. Its origins lie in the Latin exutus (originally exitus), the past participle of exire ’to go out’, with exutus ’gone out’ then morphing into issu in Anglo-Norman French.

The range of meanings for the word in 14th Century English reflected this
source rather clearly, and included ‘exit, outflow, outlet’ and ‘offspring, children’.

(Latin exire was also the source of Modern English exit, as well as the
Italian word uscita, which is the term you need to know if you want to find
your way out of an airport or railway station in Italy. The e- at the beginning
of Latin exitus – the cue word for the way out of the Colosseum – became u-
in uscita under the influence of the word Italian uscio ’gate’, from Latin
ostium ’door’.)

Later on, in the 1300s, issue started acquiring rather more abstract
meanings, with the extension of the usage of the word to refer not only to
outflows, but also to outcomes – the consequences or results of an action or

The word quite rapidly acquired a legal sense, specifically the ‘outcome of
a court case’. From there it is easy to see how it could have moved on to signify, even more specifically, a ’controversy about the outcome of a court case’.

Some 100 years later, it came to refer to any point of contention, legal or not.
To take issue with meant to take up a position contrary to the one taken on a
contentious point made by another person.

By the 19th Century, the word was also being used to refer to any
important point, contentious or not, which had to to be decided on – at a
meeting, for example.

From there, it was not too big a leap for issue to acquire the additional sense
of a point which could not be decided on, an unresolved conflict. This
meaning seems to have made its first appearance in the 1990s.

More recently its meaning has been extended further still. Here are some contemporary examples: “He seemed nice enough at first, but it turns out he’s got a lot of issues.” Or “She has serious anger issues,” and “I’ve got some issues with his behaviour.”

More examples are: “We have to become better at resolving some of the
issues which can lead to depression… the fuel shortage is still causing issues
for bus operators… the housing crisis has scope for engagement with the Church to help address the issue.”

It can be seen from these examples that issue is now showing every sign of
having quite simply turned into a synonym for ’problem’. The give-away is
that English speakers now talk, not just of discussing issues, or tackling issues, but of solving issues. “How can we solve issues?” one website asks. “This document covers solved issues” states another. “Our website solves issues faster” claims yet another.

These examples all make the current meaning of this word very clear. You
cannot solve exits, or outflows, or outcomes, or controversies. You can
only solve problems.

The word issue has come a long way in 700 years.


The words ensue, pursue and sue have no etymological connection with issue. They all come from the Latin word sequi ’to follow’, which we are also familiar with from words such as sequel. Ensue was originally in- ‘in, on, at’ + sequi; and pursue was pro– ‘for, on’ + sequi, which was also the source of prosecute.

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