Let's Talk About: The Word "Crime"

What's in a name? A name is a label or a representation of an object, which through usage and custom, is accepted by society and then becomes identified with the object. The name gives us a familiar reference point which we can then use in discussing the object with others. A name becomes the short form of the object. Instead of describing and re-describing in detail the properties of an object when refering to it in conversation, we simply provide the given name and we have instant recognition and understanding.

Etymology is the study of the history of names: from where the word came and at what period in our history the use of the word began. This history of a word is intriguing. Much like a puzzle, the history of a word can reveal a secret past, which may provide an unexpected connection. Thus, the original intent of the name, which may have transformed through time and usage, is retrieved to provide knowledge to those who desire it.

The word "crime" is defined as "an act punishable by law, usually considered an evil act." In a later posting, we will look at differing definitions, when we discuss what is a crime in the context of law generally and criminal law specifically. But for our purposes today, the definition given is the one we will accept. The first known usage of the word "crime" was in the High Middle Ages around 1250. Within this time, the Medieval period, or "Age of Faith," was drawing to an end as Marco Polo explored and returned laden with spices and stories. The Renaissance was not too far behind.

The etymology of "crime" is from the Old French crimne, which came from the Latin crimen meaning accusation and the Latin root cerno meaning "I decide. I give judgment." However, Rabbi Ernest Klein, a Romanian-born Canadian linguist, in his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, suggests that crimen is actually derived from the phrase, "cry of distress." The Latin was derived from the Ancient Greek word krima, which means a judicial sentence or condemnation.

The history of the word does reveal shades of today`s meaning but embues the word with much more colour than the dictionary meaning we used at the beginning of this posting. Crime also now speaks to the concept of accusation, which in turn speaks to the presumption of innocence as the accused has yet to be found guilty. Or the idea of justice or judgment as in the Latin and Greek root of the word. Finally, crime speaks of a cry of distress, an individual who has lost his or her way in life and looks to society to not condemn or judge but to lend guidance.

In this historical word play, crime has taken on different shades of meaning and caused us to think of the word in different way.