I have recently returned to something approaching normality after a couple of weeks jury service. A lot of the time was spent sitting around, with some roaming about in the jurors waiting area. Innumerable notices adorned the walls (I proofread them all) but it was not until the second week I found a notice referring to the origins of the judicial system in this country (and thereafter in many parts of the world), saying it was largely unknown but had existed much as it does today for several centuries.
There will be many more qualified to write on the subject of the system and my thoughts, somewhat predictably, turned to the terminology. Indeed some indication of the etymology of these terms may even give some clues as to the origins of the system.
Court – from Old French cort, itself derived from Latin cohors hortis ‘the yard retinue’. Note this refers to the whole assembly and not the room which we should correctly refer to as a courtroom.
Judge – again came to English from Old French juge and ultimately from the Latin judex judicis where jus is ‘law’ and dicus ‘speaking’.
Jury (and thus juror) – from Old French juree and ultimately from Latin jurare meaning ‘oath, swear’.
Barrister – is correctly a barrister-at-law, a term used mainly in Britain for an advocate in the higher courts and ultimately derived from the use of ‘bar’ to refer to the enclosure where a prisoner is held in a court of law. The additional ‘-ister’ is understood to have been likened to ‘minister’. Obviously the ‘bar’ in the court is used much the same as any dividing line.
Solicitor – another chiefly British term, at least from the legal perspective, and referring to those dealing with conveyancing, wills, acting in lower courts, and advising barristers. It clearly comes from ‘solicit’, from Old French solliciter. Ultimately these are from Latin, where sollicitare ‘agitate’, sollicitus ‘anxious’, and derived from sollus ‘entire’ and citus ‘set in motion’.
Prosecution – again this came to English through Old French from Latin, in English derived from ‘prosecute’. Here the origin is prosequi and used in the same sense as ‘to pursue (as in an inquiry)’ coming from Latin pro sequi.
Clerk – both Old English cleric and Old French clerc and from Latin clericus and ultimately from Greek klerikos ‘lot, heritage’. This is easy to see how those recording events in the courtroom were likened to those reading and writing on behalf of the church.
Magistrate – a term which came to English from Latin magistratus ‘administrator’ and describing perfectly the role such officers play in the court system.
Usher – correctly usher-of-the-court, the term is used to refer to those showing people to their seats in a theatre and at a wedding. This came from Old French uissier and ultimately from Latin ostiarius and ostium ‘door’.
Prisoner – clearly derived from ‘prison’ and coming to English from Old French prisun and Latin prehensio ‘the lay hold of’.
Dock – the most recent of all the terms, which is unknown in English (in this context) before the sixteenth century. It seems its original use is as a slang term and derived from the Flemish word dok or ‘cage’.
Chambers – the term used for the private quarters for barristers and judges came to our language from Old French chambre, ultimately from Latin camera meaning ‘vault, arched chamber’.
Plea – from Old French plait ‘agreement’, from Latin placitum ‘a decree’ and ultimately from Latin placer ‘to please’.
Guilty – whilst we can trace this back to Old English gylt we have no idea of its origin.
Alibi – absolutely identical to the original Latin alibi meaning ‘elsewhere’.
Evidence – sharing an origin with ‘evident’ ultimately this is from Latin videre ‘see’.
It seems the etymological evidence suggests this was brought to our shores by the Normans. As these people were descended from the Vikings who invaded the French coast and assimilated as much of the French culture as they could, the judicial system in this country will have been based on the system used in Gaul.