Background checks: everyday words with legal records
Absolute privilege, ad hoc, aforementioned, affidavit, arraignment, arbitrage: the language of law can be dense, demanding, and downright intimidating, and these are just a few of the words and phrases that begin with the letter a. For all the difficulties of legalese, a great number of common words have a surprisingly legal record, so to speak.
Dating back to the 15th century, mayhem historically denoted a criminal offense. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, mayhem was ‘the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defence.’ In the late 1800s, American English expanded mayhem to ‘violent behaviour’ more generally, but it’s not until 1976 that the OED cites its modern usage for ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder.’ Mayhem emerged as a variant of maim, rooted in an Old French word for ‘to injure’ or ‘to cripple’ and which perhaps also supplied mangle. The ultimate origins of both mayhem and maim are unknown, but scholars have suggested roots in Indo-European verbs for ‘to cut’ and ‘to change’.
For nude, it’s the argument, not the emperor, that wears no clothes. The OED first attests nude in the late 15th century, where legal ‘statements’ or ‘promises,’ for example, lacked formal documentation. The word is borrowed from the Latin nudus, an adjective well-clothed in meanings, denoting everything from ‘naked’ and ‘bare’ to ‘defenceless’ and ‘poor’. In the ensuing centuries, nude paralleled many of Latin’s own metaphorical usages of the word, stripped down to a basic sense of ‘wearing no clothes’ by 1830. Nude portraits appeared to have contributed to this sense evolution. Really showing some skin, nude is ultimately from the same Indo-European root giving English the word naked.
Legal language can be dry and demanding, but it is not wholly without color. Hotchpotch once lived a legal life. This word goes back to an early 13th-century term in Anglo-Norman French, hochepot, a stew mixing together meat and vegetables. Medieval lawyers must have had a taste for the stew, for hotchpotch was applied to property law. The OED records the Anglo-Norman word in a legal sense already from the late 13th century, meaning the ‘reunion and blending together of properties in order to secure equality of division’. And this sense is found for the English word hotchpotch and its earlier variant hotchpot respectively from 1530 and 1602. Anglo-Norman hochepot is a compound of the verb hocher ‘to shake to and fro’ (a word of Germanic origin) and pot ‘pot’.
Originally, a precarious position had nothing to do with cliff faces. Cited in 1638, precarious described something dependent on the will of another person (OED). Tenancy of a property, for example, could be precarious, as one enjoyed that right based on another’s permission. Such a situation is an uncertain one, hence the word’s evolution to denote something doubtful, risky, and insecure. Today, the sense of the word emphasizes something physically unstable or dangerous. Precarious is from a Latin word meaning ‘given as a favour, depending on the favour of another’. The word prayer is related, and to depend on one may indeed be considered precarious. Imprecate and deprecate also derive from the same root, prex, or ‘prayer.’
Sports can feature very serious contests, but never legal ones, fans should hope. Not so for umpire, a word appearing in the early 1400s for an arbitrator, ‘one who decides between disputants’. Umpire is a variant of noumpere, in turn from the French nonper, literally a ‘not-equal,’ i.e. ‘surpassing all others’ (and hence qualified to act as arbitrator or third party). Peer and par are related. But where did the n go? ‘A noumpere’ sounds like ‘an oumpere’; the n was transferred to the indefinite article in a process called metanalysis. Umpire is found in a sporting context from 1714.
Like nude, innuendo was far from suggestive when it first appeared in English. The word is Latin, literally meaning ‘by nodding at’ and was used in medieval times to introduce a parenthetical phrase. The OED attests the word in the 16th century, noting it was used especially in legal documents much like ‘to wit’ or ’that is to say’. Over time, the sense of innuendo was transferred from indicating a parenthetical remark to indicating the remark itself. The word often insinuates something derogatory today. Its negative character may perhaps be influenced by the fact that innuendo in its earlier legal use, like ‘to wit,’ would frequently introduce the name of a particular charge or accusation.
All this word history business–not to mention law business–can feel like just that: chicanery. Alas, chicanery, too, has its legal origins. The OED currently takes the word back to the early 17th century, in the sense ‘pettifoggery’, or the ‘legal quibbling’ a small-time or underhand lawyer might use. The word comes to English from the French chicanerie, ‘trickery.’ The ultimate origin of this word is unknown, though some have suggested a Germanic source in schikken (‘to arrange’); connected the word to chic or shenanigans; and have even taken it back to the Persian name for a club used in an ancient, polo-like game. Now that might just seem like some veritable chicanery.