This week Jeremy Corbyn promised that, if elected, he would “sort Brexit”, which came as welcome variation from the twin poles of “get it done” versus “make it stop”. Sadly for many Labour voters, though, he didn’t mean he would carefully “sort” Brexit into a fire-pit of things destined for oblivion.
The verb “to sort” comes from the Latin sortīrī, to distribute by lottery, which is why “sortition” is the name for a system of democratic government, arguably superior to the one we currently enjoy, where leaders are made up of randomly chosen citizens.
But Corbyn used the demotic sense of “sort” to mean “sort out”, to solve or clear up, as in the exclamation “Sorted!”. Commuters on London’s public transport have long been irritated by its “See It. Say It. Sorted” slogan, though even “to sort out” – in the sense of to resolve rather than literally to divide – is relatively newfangled, recorded only since 1948.
Yet the sense of “to sort” as to accomplish is of much more antique vintage. As the Third Citizen in Shakespeare’s Richard III remarks: “All may be well: but if God sort it so / Tis more then we deserve or I expect.” So might we feel about the election.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.