Yum Yum, Desserts


Two of the more prominent personalities to have graced our criminal justice system were O.J. Simpson, football star and celebrity extraordinaire, and Louise Woodward, the notorious au pair.

In each instance, prosecutors thought the case a piece of cake. Defense lawyers dreamt of a pie-in the-sky vindication. Though the verdicts are finally in, the question remains. Did the two receive their just deserts?

Hey, we’re not just talking chocolate mousse here. We set the table once with the French servir. After having completed our meal, we cleared it with desservir, giving us our desserts, which first  referred to the fruits and nuts placed on the table after all else had been removed.

Whether you merited them or not is irrelevant. Your just deserts derive instead from an entirely different source — from the Old French deservir, “to serve well”—  making you truly deserving.

Another matter altogether is the French désert, déserter, from the Latin, déserer, desert-, “to abandon.”

If you think our criminal justice system is a vast wasteland of sorts, i.e. a desert — it’s sure to leave you with good reason for feeling deserted.


Sing a Little Song for Me


Stool pigeons who sing like canaries are pure music to the ears of the criminal justice system.

But, alas, there’s nary a passenger pigeon among them. Once numbering in the billions, they’re now extinct, done in by cruel 19th century fowlers who hunted them for sport.

Their favorite method was to tie decoy birds by a long string to a stool. Moving the string up and down, they would then lure their prey within range of their weapons. The decoy bird was of course our very first stool-pigeon — though a good case can also be made for its roots from the Old English stale, “a living bird used to catch others of the same species.”

No surprise then to see the stool pigeon enter the ranks of law enforcement around 1830, as slang for a “criminal decoy.” Influenced by the term “carrier pigeon,” an earlier designation for an informer, the stool pigeon soon evolved into “one who snitched to the police” (c.1898).

Police soon had a chorus of informers on their hands when these birds started singing as a way of incriminating themselves and others.

But why does the stool pigeon sing like a canary?  Because pigeons don’t sing very well. That’s why.

And on that note…Tweet that.

Shyster Lawyers


Looking for legal assistance? Look no further.  We turn to attorneys in times of need, derived as they are from the French à, “to” and tourner, “to turn” — enabling them “to act on behalf of another.”

Somehow along the way, however, they got detoured, literally “turned away from” their mission. Take the Philadelphia lawyer (18thC.), a “clever practitioner of the law.” Please.

The term originated with Alexander Hamilton who in 1735, while attorney general of Philadelphia, secured the acquittal of  publisher, John Peter Zenger, on charges of criminal libel, thereby establishing the principle of freedom of the press and  himself and  his city as all that is good about the profession.

It’s been downhill ever since. When lawyers gathered together in Saratoga New York on August 8, 1878 to form the American Bar Association, its initial membership included mouthpieces (1857),  from their most prominent asset and shysters (1834) from the German scheise, “s**t.” In 1897, they added ambulance chasers.

No accident, that when we call someone a Philadelphia lawyer today, we’re referring to one who knows the law and how to manipulate it. Not to despair however. As Ben Franklin noted, “God works wonders now and then/ Behold a lawyer, an honest man.”

Scandals and Impeachment


The scandalous news emanating from the White House and the impeachment of the President provide a wonderful instance where real life parallels the history of language— as well as a defense of his actions. .

Scandal was originally not something you brought upon yourself, but something others got you into. The Greek skandalon, caused you to “stumble” — making for the Latin scandalus, a “snare” in which you were unwittingly caught. No blame here. Only later did it become a “stumbling block” — though even then, it was considered more a “hindrance” impeding your progress, than something which impacted on your image and career.

Things were similarly afoot with impeachment — deriving as it does from impedicare, to “fetter,” from  pes, ped-, “foot,” pedica, “shackles on the feet,” and pedicare, “to trip.”

It took many years of “fettering” or “hindering,” before it finally became an empechement, a “charge,” leading to the first accusation of a public official of misconduct in 1568.

Our first unimpeachable person, “one above suspicion,” didn’t surface until 1785 — leaving one wondering whether he was really so or just impossible to trip up. Unfortunately, this still leaves unanswered the current question, “Did he fall or was he pushed?