6 Legal Terms With Bloodthirsty Origins

Words are strange. Their meanings morph and warp overtime, like “Sleazy” referring to inferior Sicilian cloth, or sometimes stay the same but have weird origins, like “OMG” originating from a 75 year old WW1 British Admiral:

“I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapia – OMG – Shower it on the Admiralty”

– John Arbuthnot Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone

So it is not surprising that such an ancien profession as the law would have it’s fair share of obscure origin stories. So without much ado, here are 6 words or terms commonly used in law with bloodthirsty origins:

1. Deadline

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Falling into popular usage during the 1920’s amongst American reporters, the term has since come to mean the expiration of any time limit.

BUT…the term originated in 1864 from the American Civil War to refer to a perimeter within prisoner of war camps, which if crossed the prisoner would be murdered. Usually about 19 feet from the outside wall, the Deadline was designed to prevent prisoners from attempting to tunnel or climb the outer wall. Deadlines were used by both sides such as at Union Prison Camp Douglas Chicago. But the use of a deadline was perhaps most notoriously used by Swiss-born Confederate Captain Henry Wirz who commanded Confederate Prison Camp Andersonville. Camp Andersonville (pictured above) was an open air prison that housed over 45,000 prisoners during the war making it the 5th largest city in the Confederacy and had a death rate that reached 3,000 per month, with healthy doses of cannibalism and the general human depravity that usually are the result of extreme hunger. Captain Wirz was tried and hung for his role in the atrocities.

2. Loophole

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A loophole is a figurative means of escape which came into the common usage as early as 1660s. Now it is associated with more technical or legal routes of circumventing an otherwise impregnable system.

BUT…it’s a term from the 1300s coming from the Middle Dutch “lupen” (to watch) and then Middle English “loupe” meaning hole in the wall. Fun fact: a Loupe is the tiny magnifying glass used by watchmakers. A loophole was a slit in Castle walls to allow archers to reign terror down on attacking foes. The loopholes would be narrow on the outside but wide on the inside allowing the archers to hit the attackers from multiple angles without exposing themselves unnecessarily and therefore inflicting the maximum amount of bloody wrath.

3. Mortgage

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Everyone understands that a mortgage is most commonly a loan, usually from a financial institution and usually secured against an interest in land. The good part is, as most millennials understand it, the definition has not actually changed that much.

BUT…mortgage comes from Old French and is an amalgamation of two Latin/French words. Mort meaning death and Gage meaning pledge. Hence a mortgage was any promise between parties that that was to be a debt until one of them died. The word was first used in English in the late 12th century as a common law term referring to a mechanism to give some sort of protection to a creditor. This appears to be the juncture when the term came to mean something further than just a debt for life, to a term that that became synonymous with the security provided, usually an interest in land until the debt was paid off.

4. Addict

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I don’t think I need to explain what everyone’s idea of an addict is. Instead I’ll use these precious words to whinge about any one who uses the term “Chocoholic” because they clearly do not understand where the “…holic” part comes from. Unless your sister is actually addicted to Cafè Patron, I don’t want to hear it.

BUT…similar to mortgage above, “addict” is from the Latin ad dicere and was the legal term to refer to any debt between people, whether it be money, goods or slaves. If you could not pay the debt, you became an “addict” or were “addicted” (addictus) to the creditor. The creditor could chain up the debtor, force them to work or display them in public as a bad debtor. If no one came forward to pay the debt within 60 days they were formally a slave, entering into indentured servitude. So the term meant to be “bound” or “dedicated” to something or someone. Judges were even said to be addicere judicem, or addicted to justice.

5. Justice is Blind

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Speaking of Justice, and how blind it is: this is not strictly a legal term, but I’m not stopping until I get to six and it is getting late. This is most commonly understood as justice is supposed to be blind to bias and free from influence to hand down impartial true justice.

BUT…that is the exact opposite meaning of its origin. Lady Justice was based on Themis, the Greek Titaness of law. Justice isn’t supposed to be blind. Justice is supposed to be all seeing. The term started as a joke in a 15th century English satirical cartoon as a commentary on justice being blind and unable to properly apply the law. The cartoon had a jester tying a ribbon around the eyes of lady justice, therefore tricking it. People liked the imagery so much that it kind of just stuck and we changed the meaning later so it was noble again. Lady Justice most often appears blind in her American personifications, whilst the Brits prefer to keep it really old school.

6. Rule of Thumb

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A rule of thumb is more or less a casual rule where you essentially take a gander at something and make a well educated guess.

BUT…the rule of thumb was the maximum thickness of the instrument through which you could beat your wife. Because it would be unreasonable to beat your wife with a chair for over-frying the eggs, the 17th century Judge Sir Francis Buller supposedly stated that it was fine to beat your wife provided the instrument followed the rule of thumb, probably so as to not damage her re-sale value.