Is “anti-war protester” a double negative of sorts? Since “anti-” means “against” and “protest” means “to object to,” doesn’t that make an anti-war protester someone who objects to being against war? There’s nothing wrong with the logic here, but it’s insufficient grounds for banning this common phrase.

Is “anti-war protester” a double negative of sorts? Since “anti-” means “against” and “protest” means “to object to,” doesn’t that make an anti-war protester someone who objects to being against war?

There’s nothing wrong with the logic here, but it’s insufficient grounds for banning this common phrase.

A protester (note that the “-er” ending is preferred to “-or” in American English) is not necessarily someone showing a dislike for something. The original meaning of “protest” was “to state positively; affirm solemnly; assert,” which is still its first definition.

The clue to this positive side of the word is its prefix “pro-,” which is Latin for “for.”
A famous example of this use appears in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

The prince has a play performed for his mother, Queen Gertrude, in which a character, also a queen, makes an elaborate proclamation of her devotion to her husband. It’s all part of an intricate intrigue — Shakespeare’s characters set the bar quite high — or low — for dysfunctional families.

When Hamlet asks for Gertrude’s appraisal of the scene, she says, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

In essence, she seems to be saying that the character’s affirmation is so over-the-top that it’s probably false.

“Hamlet” is a tragedy, of course, so none of this works out all that well.

But back to Webster’s: The “test” portion of “protest” is from the Latin verb “testari,” for “to affirm,” which was derived from “testis,” meaning “witness.” This is also the root of “testify” (and other things I don’t want to get into here).

So, just as a witness might testify for the prosecution or the defense, a protester can be for or against something.

The common association of “protest” with “to make objection to” or “speak strongly against” is a later development.

Protesting, an American tradition even before there was a United States of America, has experienced a bump in popularity from the current public row over health care. Such rallies recall the days of demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. And although some of the recent gatherings have included heated exchanges and rude behavior, they are mild by comparison with those of the 1960s.

The protest movement with the most participants, and arguably the largest effect on human history, is “Protestantism” — you can see the word “protest” leading the way there.

It arose in the 16th century, when the Reformation, an effort to “reform” the Catholic Church, evolved into the formation of a separate branch of Christianity.

According to the World Book, the term “Protestant” arose in Germany in 1529 at a special assembly (called a “diet”). German leaders there who protested efforts by Roman Catholics to place limits on the practice of Lutheranism became known as Protestants. Before long, the term was applied to all of the Western Christians who had left the Roman Catholic church.

So religious fervor has been part of the protest scene for a long time.

Rockford Register Star copy editor Barry Wood can be reached at bwood@rrstar.com. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.