By Anatoly Liberman
As follows from the title, my first unpleasant character is CULPRIT; naturally, I am interested in the origin of the word rather than in the culprit’s behavior. What the OED says on the subject may be final, but the story will allow me to make a point not directly connected with guilt and crime. At first glance, culprit, with its root culpa (Latin for “fault”), is the most transparent word one can imagine. But what about -prit? English abounds in so-called disguised compounds. For example, marshal goes back to mara- (or some similar form) “mare” and skalk “slave.” The original marshal looked after horses. Then the word passed into Old French and returned to English with its lofty Romance meaning. Another horsy noun is henchman: hench- continues heng(e)st- “stallion.” Taking care of a lord’s horses gave status to medieval attendants. Marshal is disguised so well that we no longer recognize its old structure. In henchman, the presence of -man reminds us of the word’s initial composition, but hench- makes no sense to a modern speaker. In culprit, -prit baffles languages historians. However, no one ever doubted that we are dealing with a (thinly) disguised compound or word group.
In some early dictionaries, culprit was spelled culprit (1715), cul prit (1718), and cul-prit (1719). The word was relatively new at that time. It first occurred in a legal formula (see it below), but later acquired the sense “the accused” and still later “felon.” In texts, no occurrence of culprit “felon” predates 1700. I often refer to Nathaniel Bailey’s 1721 dictionary. Here is a passage from it: “Culprit, a formal word, used by the Clerk of the Arraignments, in Tryals [sic], to a Person indicted for a Criminal Matter, when he has register’d the Prisoner’s Plea, Not Guilty, and proceeds to demand of him, (Culprit) How wilt thou be Tried? Culprit seems to be compounded of two Words, i.e., Cul and Prit, viz., Cul of Culpabilis, and is a Reply of a proper Officer, on behalf of the King, affirming the Party to be Guilty after he hath pleaded Not Guilty; the other word Prit is derived of the French Word Prest, i.e., Ready, and is as much as to say, that he is ready to prove the Party Guilty. Others again derive it from Culpa, a fault, and Prehensus, taken, L. i.e., a Criminal or Malefactor.” (Note the prepositions: derived of, derive it from.) Bailey borrowed his etymology from Thomas Blount’s Law Dictionary and expanded it, but his dictionary had a much broader readership than Blount’s. Except that the OED found actual examples of cul. prit. in legal documents, Blount and Bailey’s explanation still stands.
Strangely, Samuel Johnson derived culprit from French qu’il paroit “let it appear” and took no notice of Blount’s or Bailey’s comments. In the early decades of the 19th century, correspondents to The Gentleman’s Magazine debated the origin of culprit anew, again without reference to Blount or Bailey, and vacillated between qu’il paroit, culp-prist “taken (supposed, suspected) to be guilty,” and Latin culpaereus (or culpae reus) “arraigned for a crime.” Some of them misunderstood the combination culpabilis prest as allegedly meaning “already guilty,” though it meant “guilty and (we are) ready to prove the defendant’s guilt” (“What! are our laws so severe and their procedure so preposterous as to declare a person guilty because he hath pleaded not guilty…?”)
Still later, culpable was offered as the etymon of culprit. Skeat turned to culpate “to blame” (a rare verb) and supported his guess by the history of several words of French descent with r inserted after a vowel. Under the pressure of the evidence given in the OED he changed his mind, but reluctantly, for he quoted the OED without comment. If culprit arose as nowadays almost everybody thinks it did, its source was “a fortuitous or ignorant running together of two words (the fusion being made possible by the abbreviated writing of legal records)” (OED) or in the words of one dissenter from the prevailing opinion, “such stenographic makeshifts as infra dig., r.i.p., r.s.v.p., &c.” This was written in 1909. Today a correspondent to Notes and Queries could have added l.o.l. “laugh out loud”, a short-lived favorite of our texting. It should be added that the way from ignorant scribble to the meaning “accused” and “felon” has not been clarified either. It is no wonder that The Century Dictionary, which usually devotes ample space to the origin of obscure words, disposed of the matter in two lines (it merely summarized the conclusion in the OED) and that Ernest Weekley said in his English etymological dictionary that the existing explanation “is not altogether satisfactory.” Whether a better one is forthcoming remains to be seen.
And now to the point I promised to make at the beginning of this post. In my analytic dictionary of English etymology, I attempt to give a survey of all the hypotheses on the origin of the words I discuss and often hear the objection that the authors of our oldest (“prescientific”) dictionaries should be ignored, for, as “everybody knows,” what they said about etymology is at best dated and more often sheer nonsense. To my mind, this is a wrong approach. In many cases early researchers made valid suggestions. This is especially true when for solving the puzzle no recourse to sound laws, intricate vowel alternations, and so forth was needed. Besides, conjectures on the origin of words tend to be recycled with amazing regularity: from century to century people come up with the same ideas, for they seldom take the trouble to consult their predecessors (one’s own idea is always new and interesting, isn’t it?). Having an overview of past follies and discoveries will come many in good stead. Fortunately, James Murray, the first editor of the OED, knew the value of old books. Intolerant as he was of ignorant guesses, he never stopped investigating the history of ideas, and that is why the OED is what it is.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”