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The word ‘protocol’ – pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, which rhymes with ‘flow’ or ‘grow’ – is used in two broadly different ways.

  • Protocol’ may mean: the conventions, system of rules, or code of conduct governing a particular sphere of formal or official activity, such as diplomatic relations or ceremonial occasions. Thus ‘to follow protocol’ means ‘to follow the accepted rules or conventions’. (Note that in this expression ‘protocol’ does not have an article.) However, the word has come to be used, with a similar sense, in other contexts. In medicine a protocol is either a set of rules for the conduct of a research project (to ensure that the project is scientifically valid and ethically acceptable) or a plan for the treatment of a patient; while in computing a protocol is a set of rules determining the appropriate form or format of data, especially when there is an exchange of data between different computer systems. (Note that in these latter contexts ‘protocol’ usually has the definite or indefinite article.)
  • A ’protocol’ may also be an official document of the kind that might be drawn up in the course of diplomatic activity, such as the record of an agreement, a treaty, or an amendment or annexe to a treaty. For example, the international agreement which prohibits the use in war of chemical and biological weapons is commonly referred to as the Geneva Protocol: its official title is the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare: signed at Geneva in 1925, the Protocol reaffirms and extends prohibitions contained in the Hague Declaration (1899) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919).

In Philosophy the expression ‘protocol sentence’ or ‘protocol statement’ was used by some Logical Positivists as a name for sentences which report or describe immediate experience or perception, these being one of the two basic types of sentence which Logical Positivism recognizes as verifiable and therefore as having meaning. The expression ‘protocol sentence’ is particularly associated with the German philosopher Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), and is a translation of the German Protokollsatz. In German Protokoll means ‘record or report’ - in das Protokoll eintragen, e.g., means ‘to take the minutes (of a meeting)’ – and Protkollsätzen were so called by Carnap because they were reports or records (of experience or perception).

Be aware of a notorious forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion sometimes 'The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion':
Parts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were first published in 1903, in (Tsarist) Russia. A full version was first published bv Sergei Nilus (1862-1929) in 1905, also in Russia, as Chapter 12 of The Great in the Small: The Coming of the Anti-Christ and the Rule of Satan on Earth (Velikoe v malom i antikhrist, kak blizkaia politicheskaia vozmozhnost. Zapiski pravoslavnago. The Protocols were probably created in the last decade of the nineteenth century or the first two years of the twentieth, possibly by a Ukrainian speaker, or by the Tsarist secret police. They purport to be the minutes of a series of secret meetings of Jewish leaders, and show them plotting to dominate the world. They were first conclusively shown to be forgeries in 1921, in articles by Phillip Graves in The Times of London, and, independently, by Herman Bernstein in his The History of a Lie: The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion. Rulings that the 'Protocols' are false anti-Jewish propaganda have followed in Swiss, Russian and other courts, the United States Senate and other bodies. The millionaire car manufacturer Henry Ford (1863-1947), who had sponsored an edition of half a million copies, retracted his support and withdrew remaining copies from sale in 1927. The Nazis, who found them supportive of their own vile beliefs, disseminated them widely in the 1930s and 1940s; they are currently (2014) widely used in the dispute between Israel and Palestine, where they are quoted as evidence against Jews and the state of Israel, despite clear demonstrations of their falsity.

Etymological note: The word ‘protocol’ comes, through the Medieval Latin protocollum, from the Late Greek protocollon (a compound of protos, first, and kolla, glue). In classical antiquity a protocollon was the first sheet of a papyrus roll. The roll consisted of several sheets of papyrus glued together, and the first sheet displayed the official authentication and date of manufacture of the papyrus and indicated the contents of the roll. The original meaning of ‘protocol’ in English was ‘the first note or record of an agreement’.