Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest.
Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.
English has 13 word groups derived from Latin cedere, go, yield, which shows a generally messy mix with regularities and irregularities, common, uncommon and specialised words:
accede – accession/accedence – access
antecede – antecedence/antecedent
cede – cession/cedent – (unrelated) cess
concede – concession/?concedence
exceed – exceedance – excess
intercede – intercession/intercedent – ?intercess
precede – precession/precedence/precedent – precess
proceed – procession/procedure – process
recede – recession – recess
secede – secession
succeed – succession – success
retrocede – retrocession/?retrocedence/?retrocedent
supercede – supercession
There are other forms, especially nouns ending with -er/-or and the adjectives excessive, [intercessory], successive and successful, as well as, of course, all standard verb and noun inflections and -ly adverbs. The words marked with ? above are in at least one dictionary, but Pages for Mac red-underlines them.
And that last one should be supersede, I found out later, because it’s derived from sedere, sit. But supercede appears on lists of English words ending with -cede and Pages for Mac doesn’t red-underline it. At least it didn’t the first time, but did when I typed it in the previous sentence. Given that supersede is the only English word ending with -sede, maybe supercede will become a genuine alternative or even the standard spelling. Supersede is still strong: Dictionary.com calls supercede “a frequent misspelling of supersede”, and Google Ngrams shows that supersede is hundreds of times more common than supercede, which is hardly frequent. I can’t find any reason why exceed, proceed and succeed are spelled -eed and not -ede.
In the list above, the -ess forms are a mixture of verbs, nouns or both. When it is a verb, it has a smaller or bigger difference in meaning than the -ede/-eed form, for example proceed and process. When it is a verb and noun, there is sometimes a change of pronunciation, for example, verb pro-CESS (walk in formal formation), verb PRO-cess (perform a procedure on) and noun PRO-cess, and sometimes not, ACC-ess.
I emailed the prayer leader, who I haven’t met in person because he arrived at our church during low-level coronavirus restrictions and we are now under high-level restrictions. I typed most of the above before he replied, and I didn’t want to recast everything. He provided a screenshot of the Oxford English Dictionary (which I don’t have access to, because money), which labels intercess as obsolete and defines it simply as to intercede. He also said “I was not using ‘intercess’ from a written source … I like how the word sounds, and it provides another way of saying ‘we pray’ or ‘we intercede’.” He added that he’s heard our organist use it. Maybe it’s an American usage: our prayer leader is American and our organist spend some time studying and working there.
Personally, if a word is labelled as obsolete, is defined simply in terms of another, non-obsolete word and has a close to zero usage, I wouldn’t use it. But that’s no reason for anyone else not to, if they like the sound of it and think it provides another way of saying something. And maybe there’s a difference in meaning: compare The negotiator interceded for the hostages and The negotiator intercessed for the hostages, and especially The negotiator interceded with the kidnappers and The negotiator intercessed with the kidnappers.