Elle a obtenu un sursis.
ay lah up-tuh-new uh sewr-SEE. Click below to hear this.*
She was granted a reprieve.
Oh, you are going to be reaching for the aspirin by the time you finish reading this!
Un sursis is a reprieve (for example,from a death sentence) or a delay. In addition to today’s sentence, you can say things like Il a eu deux ans de prison avec sursis, which in English legal terminology means He got a two-year suspended sentence.
And where does this word come from? The Old French word seoir means to sit. From that comes another Old French word, surseoir, meaning to defer, whose past participle is sursis. That, in turn, comes from the Latin supersedere, which looks as if it means to sit upon but actually means to sit above.
So this is not a story about squashing people in their chair. It is about a higher authority overruling a lower one. The concept of deferral comes from setting aside an onerous punishment in favor of an easier one.
But wait, you may say. What about the English word surcease? It looks related.
Ah, sharp eyes you have! That is actually the same word, whose spelling reflects the common pronunciation of French words in the Middle Ages. The final s of sursis would have been pronounced, and English ears would confound /seess/ with their English cease, especially since the meaning really does seem to involve stopping one course of action and setting another in motion. Hence the notion of authority behind the French word is replaced by the notion of cessation in the English.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: