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The curious case of culprit

Amnesia, disguises, and mistaken identities? No, these are not the plot twists of a blockbuster thriller or bestselling page-turner. They are the story of the word culprit.

At first glance, the origin of culprit looks simple enough. Mea culpa, culpableexculpateand the more obscure inculpate: these words come from the Latin culpa, “fault” or “blame.” One would suspect that culprit is the same, yet we should never be so presumptuous when it comes to English etymologyCulprit is indeed connected to Latin’s culpa, but it just can’t quite keep its story straight.

A criminal history

The Norman Conquest in 1066 crowned the French language in England for centuries, forever changing the English tongue as a result, as is particularly evident in vocabulary. As it was the language of the nobility, French became the language of government and administration, including the law courts. Separated from the continent and interacting with English, a variety known as Anglo-Norman French developed, serving as the basis of Law French, the language used in the English courts. Even as the status of French gradually began to ebb in the 13th century, French continued to influence the English language, and Law French continued to mediate the proceedings at the bar until the end of the 17th century.

One such proceeding was the opening of a trial, which relied on a particular legal formula. When a defendant pleaded “not guilty” before the judge, the prosecutor replied, originally in Old FrenchCulpable: prest d’averrer nostre bille, or Guilty: ready to aver our indictment, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides. In other words, the prosecutor answered the defendant’s plea of “not guilty” with a charge of “guilty”–and was ready to prove it.

Much as today, the court recorded these proceedings and relied on abbreviations to do so. For this formula, culpable was abbreviated as cul. and prest as prit (or prist), an Anglo-Norman variant. Thus, court rolls read Cul. prit. Over time, familiarity with this French formula faded and the words ran together. The result, culprit, was confused for a way of addressing the defendant.

The OED first attests culprit in the 1678 trial of the Earl of Pembroke as accounted in Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials (1810). According to these State Trials, the government indicted Philip, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery for beating one Nathaniel Cony to death. A court officer, known as the Clerk of the Crown (Cl. of Cr.), brought the indictment of Philip, Earl of Pembroke (E. of Pemb.), as the State Trials documents:

Clerk of the Crown: How say you, Philip earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Are you guilty of this felony and murder whereof you stand indicted, or not guilty?

E. of Pemb. Not guilty.

Cl. of Cr. Culprit, how will you be tried?

E. of Pemb. By my peers.

Cl. of Cr. God send you a good deliverance.

The presumption of guilt

By the 1700s, culprit was merely naming the accused. Come the latter half of the century, culprit was naming the guilty, knowledge of its specific Law French origin already ceding to a popular assumption that it traced immediately back to Latin’s culpa. Of course, we’re far from misguided in assuming culprit is a direct derivative of culpa. The Anglo-Norm French responsible for the abbreviated cul., culpable, is indeed from the Latin adjective of culpaculpabilis. That prit re-supplies a p only reinforces the connection. But trials–and etymologies–can indeed be won and lost on technicalities.

On an etymological level, culprit is thus the stuff of a crime drama. The identity of a culprit gets mistaken, the presumption of innocence lost. The fusion of cul. and pritmake culprit a compound noun in disguise. Amnesia, if you will, set in as the original French was forgotten. Etymology seldom has direct evidence as its disposal, but, culprit, for all its twists and turnshas a pretty compelling case.

A version of this post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “bokeh link fence” by Will Montague. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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