Friday, 16 June 2017


Research often sees me ploughing through week after week of old newspapers, inevitably found on microfilm. Looking for criminal activities of yesteryear, I found the now obsolete crime of 'uttering' (passing forged money) and wondered how on earth a word meaning 'to speak' could also be a crime, etymologically speaking of course, for it is easy to see how certain individuals even thinking of opening their mouths could be considered criminal.

Arson - came to English from Old French arsion and Latin arsionem both meaning 'a burning'. Ultimately from Proto-Indo-European as 'to burn, glow', this has also given us the word 'ash' as in the residue of a fire.

Barratry - I actually thought this a misprint until I discovered this referred to marine law and 'the wrongful conduct by any on board resulting in a loss to the owners'. The word came to English from Old French baraterie 'deceit, guile, trickery' and a name also given to a bay off the coast of Louisiana and named as it was difficult to navigate through the entry.

Battery - is fairly easy to see as meaning 'to beat, thrash'; the word also giving us the sense of 'bombardment' and also the electrical storage cell. All come from Proto-Indo-European bhau 'to strike'.

Bigamy - is easier to understand if we separate the two elements, the prefix 'bi' meaning 'double' and followed by the Greek gamos 'to marry' and Proto-Indo-European gem 'to marry'. This early root is also the source of 'gamete', and Greek words referring to 'son-in-law, brother-in-law, father-in-law', Sanskrit fir 'brother, sister, daughter-in-law', and the seventh month of the ancient Attic calendar known as Gamelion, roughly corresponding to late January and early February this translates as 'the month of marriages'.

Blackmail - again two elements, the former 'black', first used as an adjective and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bhleg 'to burn, shine, flash' and thus coming to the colour black as being used in the sense 'to blacken' for the original meaning was quite the opposite; with the suffix 'mail' ultimately from Proto-Indo-European mod 'meet, assemble'.

Bribery - came to English from Old French bribe 'bit, piece, hunk, morsel of bread given to beggars' and also Old French bribeor 'vagrant, beggar'.

Burglary - first please note ITV newsreaders the word is not pronounced as 'burgle-ree', although it does come from the Latin burgator 'burglar' and burgare 'to break open'.

Embezzlement - is from Old French em 'in' and besillier torment, destroy, gouge'. Earlier forms are unknown.

Embracery - is an alternative description of 'bribery' and comes from the Middle French embrasser 'to clasp in arms, enclose, covet, handle'.

Extortion - directly from Latin extorquere 'to wrench out, wrest away, obtain by force' and ultimately Proto-Indo-European terkw 'to twist'.

Forgery - quite obviously having the same root as 'forge' in the metalwork sense which can be shown to share a common root with 'fabric' in Proto-Indo-European dhabh 'to fit together'.

Hijacking - puts together a shortened form of 'high' used to mean 'to lift' with 'jack' a slang term for 'to steal'. It is a comparatively recent term.

Incitement - from Old French and ultimately Proto-Indo-European en 'in' and the root of 'cite', Proto-Indo-European keie 'to set in motion'.

Kidnapping - a compound of 'kid' and a variant of 'nab', this originally referred to stealing children to provide servants and labourers in the American colonies, thus 'kid' is quite correct.

Larceny - coming to English from the French and Latin route, this originates in Proto-Indo-European le 'to get'.

Libel - comes from Latin libellus 'a little book, pamphlet', it also the origin of 'library'.

Looting - in English meant, as recently as the 19th century, 'goods taken from an enemy' rather than simply any stolen goods. This came from the Hindi lut and Sanskrit lotram, and all with the root in Proto-Indo-European roup-tro 'to snatch'.

Malversation - is another I'd never heard and thus had no idea it was 'professional or official corruption'. Coming to English through French and Latin, it can be traced to Proto-Indo-European wer 'to turn, bend' and preceded by 'mal' from Proto-Indo-European mol-o 'wrong, evil'.

Manslaughter - the important part here is the 'slaughter', itself from 'slay' which is virtually unchanged through a chain of Germanic terms and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European slak 'to strike'.

Murder - is another with a Germanic history and one traceable to Proto-Indo-European where mer was used to mean 'rub away, harm, die'.

Perjury - here Old French per 'entirely' and the root of 'jury', this Latin iurare 'to swear'.

Piracy - is from 'pirate', itself seen as ultimately from Proto-Indo-European per-ya 'trial, an attempt, attack'.

Rape - comes from the Latin rapere 'seize' and Proto-Indo-European rep 'to snatch'.

Robbery - is obvioulsy from 'rob' and this can be traced back to the same Proto-Indo-European root as the previous crime, where rep means 'to snatch'.

Sacrilege - here 'sacred', from the Proto-Indo-European root sak 'to sanctify' unites with the Proto-Indo-European root leg 'to collect, gather'; to suggest something taken away from a holy idea or object.

Shoplifting - 'lift' here is used in the sense of 'to take', this following a word with a Germanic root meaning 'shed, barn, building without walls'.

Smuggling - 'smuggle' has similar words in several Germanic tongues all suggesting 'to creep', 'to slip', and similar.

Theft - a Germanic word and derived from 'thief', itself of uncertain origin but common to just about every Germanic language.

Treason - seen as the worst of crimes, as it affects more than any other crime, it comes from the French and Latin where the latter traditionem 'delivery, surrender' and from two elements trans 'over' and do 'to give' and for obvious reasons.

Uttering - was what started it all and derived from the Middle English verb outen 'to disclose' and Old English utan 'to put out'. These can be traced to Proto-Germanic ut 'out' and this from Proto-Indo-European ud 'up, out, away'. Thus the link between 'to speak' and passing forged money is in the sense 'to give out'.

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