Anyone with even a passing interest in English etymology has heard stories of the historical relationship between English and French. For a long time in England, French (a Romance language) was the language of politics and the upper classes, and English (a Germanic language) was the tongue of the common people. That’s why, for instance, it’s a pig and cow in the field but pork and beef on the plate.
But politics also takes in law, and the language of the courtroom that isn’t straight-up Latin — such as in abstentia and in flagrante delicto — is more likely than not to be derived from Latin roots, having entered the English language through French.
All this is what I realized Monday morning while I sat in a cold, small courtroom listening to voir dire while five dozen (or so) people and I were whittled to fourteen to serve as jury in a murder case. It seemed as if everyone in the courtroom bore some sort of Latinate title.
So when I got home, I did some research and discovered that my impression was almost entirely correct. Almost.
Representing the Bench
Judge: The Latin jus means “right.” Combine that with dicere “to decide,” and we get judicare “to judge” and judex “a judge.” This passed through Middle French and into Middle English as juge, which became the judge we know today.
Bailiff: The Latin bajulus meant “a porter,” and bajulare meant “to carry a load” and then “to control.” In Old French, this became the noun bail “custody, jurisdiction,” which gave us Old French baillif, which entered Middle English unaltered and eventually became bailiff.
The Middle French verb baillier means “to have in charge, to deliver,” and in the United States, a bailiff more or less serves as the hands and legs of the judge in a court case. For example, after deliberations, the foreperson hands the decision to the bailiff, who then delivers it to the judge.
However, in England’s history, a bailiff was an official who worked for a sheriff, serving writs, making arrests, and (gulp!) carrying out executions. Today, English bailiffs have the legal power to collect certain debts from debtors.
On a side note, bailiwick, one of my favorite words, comes from baillif + wic, where -wic denotes “dwelling place, village.” Pity the poor Nottingham bailiff whose bailiwick was Sherwood Forest.
Representing the Accuser and Accused
Plaintiff: If you’ve ever wondered whether plaintiff and plaintive (“expressing woe”) were related, they are. They both come from the Middle French plaintif, which can be traced back to Latin plangere “to strike, to beat one’s breast or lament.” In court, of course, the plaintiff is the party that brought (in a civil case) the lawsuit or (in a criminal case) the criminal charges. (That would be the state.)
Defendant: This, of course, is related to the word defend, which is what the defendant does. But it, like most legal lingo, is a Latinate term. It comes from de- + fendere “to strike,” which entered Middle English through the Old French defendre.
Representing Impartial Justice
Juror and jury: A handful of English legal terms begin with jur-, like jurisprudence, jurisdiction, and of course juror and jury. Like judge, they all stem from the Latin jus “right.”
What you might not know is that we have not only jurors but jurists as well, and they aren’t the same thing. A juror is a member of a jury, whereas a jurist is someone who has a thorough knowledge of the law. Jurist is more likely to describe a judge than the guy who circled the city-county building three times down one-way streets on a cold Monday morning trying to figure out how to get to the parking garage entrance.
Foreperson: Foreperson is a modern, gender-neutral word derived from foreman, and it’s way more modern than it ought to be. According to this little page I found at the Library of Congress, “As late as 1942 only twenty-eight state laws allowed women to serve as jurors, but these also gave them the right to claim exemption based on their sex. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave women the right to serve on federal juries, but not until 1973 could women serve on juries in all fifty states.”
Somehow, though, the original title for the juror who acts as spokesperson for the group wasn’t given a Latinate name. My sources trace fore- only back to Old English and note that it is akin to Old High German fora and Gothic faura. Man (and woman) also trace their roots to Old English.
Person, however, does come from Latin — from persona “an actor’s mask, a person in a play,” which, like the rest of these terms, came into Middle English through Old French. So our desire for gender-neutral terms has, entirely by accident (I assume), brought a non-Latinate legal title more in line with the legal profession’s overwhelmingly Latin lexicon.
Image by Emmanuel Huybrechts from Laval, Canada (Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium). CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.