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.

Proofiness: A Companion To Yesterday's Blog

Proofiness - yes, Stephen Colbert suggested the word when he coined the term "truthiness" meaning the intuition we have when we "just know" something is true as opposed to an objectively proven fact. See my earlier blog on Legal Intuition for more on intuition and fact-finding. But it is Charles Seife, a mathematician and journalist, who invented it. Yesterday, I issued a caution on the use of statistics as a basis for legislation, specifically, the new Alberta and, not so new, British Columbia impaired driving laws. I even invoked Mark Twain to provide the lesson: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." But today, the term "proofiness" will do.

In Seife's book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, Seife makes a case for the "power in numbers" and the resultant misuse of such power by politicians, scientists, pollsters, advertisers, and the like. Numbers can be manipulated to support or dismiss claims. Numbers, themselves objective quantifiers, can be presented as "proof" to support subjective facts and transform the position into irrefutable truths. Anyone who works in an area where numbers matter must read this informative and disturbing book.

Another similar book is Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine On Trial by scientist Simon Singh and phyisician Dr. Edzard Ernst on the fallacy of many alternative remedies. The book resulted in a libel lawsuit against Simon Singh, who recently won on appeal. Singh is also an excellent science writer. I have read and highly recommend; The Big Bang,The Code Book, and Fermat's Last Theorem. But it is his Trick book which contributes to our statistical story. Singh discusses the "trickiness" of some alternative medical practitioners in their use of statistical evidence to show their treatments work. Like Seife, Singh cautions on the inferences to be drawn from statistics without full knowledge of the connections between the statistic and the inference. He gives a priceless example in his book on statistics of climate change and the number of pirates. Statistics can show that global warming diminishes with the number of pirates. Ergo, we need more pirates! Of course, the reasoning is wrong but yet the numbers don't lie. 

Finally, I leave you with a recent article I read from Scientific American on the population "clock" wherein the census takers warn the world of the next population milestone. Indeed, Kofi Annan in 1999 pinpointed the boy who was the "sixth billionth" person on Earth. This was proofiness at its best or should we say worst as there is no way to pinpoint with accuracy actual population. It is all estimate and guess. But it does provide a great marketing moment as the press and media disseminate the "truth." 

We have come, of course, full circle. Numbers don't lie but people do. So the next time you are faced with statistics and polls, just pull a Colbert and demand to see the proof.

As an aside, the Language Log has a great blog on a linguistic analysis of the word "proofiness" and the use of "iness" as a "Colbert suffix." Enjoy!