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Archive for February, 2021

Kith and Kin

Posted by Admin on February 27, 2021

Kith and kin originally meant one’s country and relatives, and eventually became a phrase that referred to one’s friends and family.

These days, kith is one of those words that has managed to survive until this day without a meaning beyond this expression which means it’s what linguists refer to as a fossil word. But when this wasn’t the case, kith had a life all its own in language. Its roots are found in the Middle English word kitthe which means homeland or native region, which is from the Old English word cydd.

It’s also part of a select group of phrases known as irreversible binomials. Other irreversible binomials include aid and abet, quick and dirty, and chop and change. An irreversible binomial is where the words always appear in the same order and are never found switched around.

On 6 July 2020, newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Chef Kwame Onwuachi who opened the Kith and Kin restaurant three years earlier in Washington’s Wharf district on the ground floor of the InterContinental Hotel was leaving his restaurant and would no longer be the Executive Chef for Kith and Kin.

The Chicago Tribune ran a news article on 01 December 1995 titled, “Scottish Immigrants Find a Home Away From Home: Retirement Facility Keeps Culture Alive.” The article was about the first philanthropic organization in Illinois known as the St. Andrew Society that was founded 150 years earlier in 1845 by U.S. Army Captain George McClennan. McClennan made a name for himself as a prominent general for the North during the Civil War, and was, of course, of Scottish descent.

The St. Andrew Society was kicking off a capital campaign and the following was reported:

The Scottish Home retirement and nursing home in North Riverside is the heart and soul of the society today, said Alexander Kerr Jr., the society’s president. The home was originally built in 1910, and to mark the society’s 150th anniversary, members have kicked of the $7 million “Kith and Kin” capital campaign, to add a special health-care wing to the current home.

Harold Riffe wrote in his column “Fair and Mild” in the Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail of 03 July 1960 that the expression kissing cousins was, in his opinion, a corruption of kith and kin which he chalked up to a lisp.

As for “kissin’ cousins’ that was only a logical and easy projection of the “kith and kin” idea, and, I might add, a very nice projection, too.

Thuth doth a lithp have romanth!

In 1928, English author and self-styled clergyman Montague Summers (10 April 1880 – 10 August 1948) wrote “The Vampire, His Kith and Kin” wherein he set forth his philosophy of vampirism. His writings focused primarily on witchcraft, vampires, and werewolves, and he was the first to translate the 15th century witch hunter’s manual, “Malleus Maleficarum” into English.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Montague Summers was ordained a deacon of the Church of England but did not move past that level due in large part to his interest in Satanism and the occult. In time, he began presenting himself as a Catholic priest even though he was not a member of any Catholic order or diocese and was not a Catholic. He was also never ordained a priest of any religious order.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: He was acquainted with Aleister Crowley and while Aleister Crowley adopted the persona of a witch, Montague Summers adopted the persona of a learned witch-hunter.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Montague Summers has the phrase “Tell me strange things” engraved on his headstone, and his manservant Hector Stuart-Forbes is buried with him in the same plot.

American teacher and children’s author Martha Finley (26 April 1828 – 30 January 1909) wrote a number of books over the years, including “Elsie’s Kith and Kin” which was published in 1886 and was the 12th book in the Elsie series of books. In all, Martha Finley wrote twenty-eight Elise Dinsmore books over almost forty years, and the series made Martha Finley one of the most renowned children’s authors of her era with book sales that were second only to Louisa May Alcott.

The expression was used in “A Christmas Carol” by English novelist, journalist, illustrator, and social critic Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870). The book was published on 19 December 1843 and the expression is found in this passage.

“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your Family,” said Scrooge.

“There are some upon this Earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves; not us.”

Scrooge promised that he would; and they went on, invisible as they had been before, into the suburbs of the town. It was a remarkable property of the Ghost (which Scrooge had observed at the baker’s) that notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease; and that he stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall.

The National Bard aka the Bard of Ayrshire, Scottish poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) used the expression in the text of “My Lord A-Hunting” published in 1787. The third verse reads thusly:

My lady’s white, my lady’s red,
And kith and kin o’ Cassillis’ blude;
But her ten-pund lands o’ tocher gude;
Were a’ the charms his lordship lo’ed.

As you can see, the meaning of kith and kin that is understood in the 21st century hasn’t changed in several centuries. In fact, in the Middle English narrative poem by William Langland (1332 – 1390) the idiom is found in “The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman” which is believed to have been written sometimes after the Good Parliament of 1376 and after the Papal Schism of 1379, and was most likely completed some time between 1382 and 1387. The poem was, however the product of thirty year’s labor ad the poem was in a near-constant state of revision during that time.

ORIGINAL: Fer fro kitth and fro kynne yuel yclothed ȝeden.
TRANSLATION: Far from kith and from kin they evil-clothed went.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published example of this idiom however it is an idiom that undoubtedly reaches back much, much farther in light of the fact that Old English was spoken from the 5th through to 11th centuries, and well after the Norman invasion of 1066.

Considering that the oldest surviving literature written in Old English is “Caedmon’s Hymn” from the 7th century, it is possible that an earlier example of the idiom was published prior to William Langland’s epic poem. It’s just that Idiomation did not uncover the idiom in other literary texts prior to Willian Langland’s epic poem.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cause Célèbre

Posted by Admin on February 20, 2021

The expression cause célèbre came up in last week’s entry on Idiomation, and this got Idiomation wondering as to how old that expression is, and whether the origins of the expression really are found in France as the spelling implies. For those who may not be sure what a cause célèbre is, it’s an issue or incident responsible for widespread controversy and usually leads to heated public debates on the subject.

It is, to translate the expression word for word, a famous cause, that it is so controversial in nature that it seems everyone is talking about the cause of the controversy and what is being said about it as well as by whom.  Examples of a cause célèbre would be the ongoing Julian Assange saga, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Rodney King incident, and the Amanda Knox trial to name just a few.

The word cause in English is from the Latin word causa that refers to judicial process, and has to do with the reason or motive for a legal decision, or the grounds for action. It has been used in this sense since circa 1200.  When it is used in the sense of a side taken in a controversy, that dates back to circa 1300, so let’s take a look at where in the timeline cause célèbre came to be a recognized expression.

Hillary Clinton used the expression in August of 2015 when defending the situation when she was the U.S. Secretary of State and intelligence officials determined that over 300 messages on her private email account on her private email server were potentially classified, and an inspector general stated at least two of the email messages contained top secret information. When asked at a press conference about the emails and email server, she was quoted by a number of mainstream media sources as saying:

In retrospect, this didn’t turn out to be convenient at all and I regret that this has become such a cause celebre. But that does not change the facts, the facts are stubborn — what I did was legally permitted.

From March through to June 2011, the Old Vic Theatre in London (England) presented the stage play “Cause Célèbre: A Woman of Principle” to mark the centennial of its author, English author, dramatist, and screenwriter, Terence Rattigan (10 June 1911 – 30 November 1977). It wasn’t the first time the play had been performed. In 1987, a television version starring Helen Mirren as Alma Rattenbury was broadcast. Before that, a stage version co-written by Terence Rattigan and Robin Midgely was presented on 4 July 1977 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Eighteen months earlier, it had been broadcast on BBC on 27 October 1975 as a radio play.

The story was inspired by the trial of Alma Rattenbury (the former Alma Pakenham) and her teenage lover, George Percy Stoner (19 November 1916 – 24 March 2000), who, along with Alma, murdered Alma’s third husband, Francis Mawson Rattenbury (11 October 1867 – 28 March 1935) in 1935.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  Although Francis was Alma’s third husband, Alma was Francis’ second wife.  In 1923, he left his first wife of 24 years, Florence Nunn and their two children, for 27-year-old Alma.  He publicly flaunted his affair with Alma, and because of that and other bad behaviors, he was shunned by his former clients and associates to such a degree that he had to move away from Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). 

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Alma committed suicide days after being acquitted of murder and of being an accessory after the fact,  George was convicted and sentenced to death, which was commuted to life imprisonment, then released seven years into his sentence to join the army and fight in the Second World War, after which he did not return to prison.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1:  Francis Mawson Rattenbury was the architect for the British Columbia Parliament Building, the Provincial Courthouse of British Columbia, the chateau styled Empress hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the 18-room, 3-story Burns Manor for then-Senator Pat Burns in Calgary (Alberta, Canada).  He also designed a number of hotels and stations for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway which weren’t built due to the death of the company’s president, Charles Melville Hays, who, in 1912, was a passenger on the RMS Titanic. 

On 11 June 1910, The Star newspaper in Christchurch (New Zealand) carried the news story by Charles Morrimer of the London Graphic of the trial of the Korean accused of murdering Prince Ito Hirobumi (14 October 1841 – 26 October 1909).  It was reported that the accused “had every possible advantage which the law allowed; he was warmly housed, decently fed, humanely treated.” He was defended by English lawyer, John Charles Edward (J.E.) Douglas (12 September 1876 – 18 December 1915), son of Canadian born Royal Navy officer Admiral Sir Archibald Douglas (8 February 1842 – 12 March 1913), and the accused spoke with his foreign counsel through an interpreter.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Admiral Sir Archibald Douglas was born in Quebec (Canada) as the son of a physician, and died in Newnham (England), and was the first Canadian to obtain a naval cadetship. He was also the director of the first British naval mission to Japan. He rose to be a Sea Lord of the Admiralty under Goschen and Lord Selborne and, finally, Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: He was an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) from 1893 through to 1895.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: John Charles Edward (J.E.) Douglas was appointed Registrar of the British Supreme Court for China in Shanghai in August 1901, and served in that position until 1907. From 1907 to 1915, he was in private practice at the bar in Shanghai before signing up for war service.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 3: Admiral Douglas’ son, J.E. Douglas was a Major in the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. He was killed in action in Flanders on 18 December 1915 at the age of 39.

The court system was unlike the British court system as the Japanese court system had availed itself of the German Criminal Code in creating their own.

The accused, along with the accused accomplices, sat politely in the courtroom, and it was reported that the “Oriental public was much too well-behave to express either approvation or disapprovation.”

The Japanese, when they tried Prince Ito’s murdered, stood in a blaze of light — all eyes fixed on them. They knew it perfectly well. The case proved even more than a cause celebre: it proved a test case — and Japan’s modern civilization was as much on trial as any of the prisoners.

In the end, the accused murderer got the death sentence. One of the accomplices was sentenced to three years imprisonment with yard labor, and the other two accomplices received eighteen months imprisonment a piece.

The article ended with this:

He had the hero’s crown almost within his grasp, and he left the Court proudly. Has this cause celebre, so beautifully conducted, so wisely judged, ended as a score for the murderer and his misguided fellow patriots after all?

The 11 October 1900 edition of the Bismarck Tribune of Bismarck, North Dakota reported on the will of a certain Mr. Musgrove in the paper’s column, “Around The State.”

In the Musgrove will case at Grafton, Mrs. O.E. Sauter, wife of Judge Sauter of the Seventh district, is the beneficiary under the will, and Judge Sauter is named as the executor. The cause promises to become a cause celebre in Walsh county and will probably get to the supreme court [sic] before it is done. Musgrove was assistant state health officer at the time of his death. His property is said to be valued at $15,000 to $20,000.

It was on 20 March 1858 that The Hobart Town Daily Mercury newspaper reported on a criminal trial centered around the steamy story of a married man by the last name of Guillot who was carrying on not only with one young woman, but with two young women in town at the same time: The lovely Laurence Thouzery and the equally lovely Blanche de Jeufosse, daughter of the late cavalry officer, Mr. Jeufosse of the village of St. Aubin-sur-Gaillon.

Upon learning of the affair between her daughter, Blanche and Mr. Guillot, the mother convinced her gamekeeper to defend the honor of the family, which he did, and which subsequently led to Mr. Guillot’s passing. The accused and all parties that could be prosecuted in the matter were acquitted on all charges as the courts determined the killing of Mr. Guillot was justified and in accordance to law.

The title of the news article was: A New Cause Celebre.

The expression was very popular for titles of newspaper articles and books, including the 1850 book by French politician and free person of color born in Martinique, Cyrille Charles Auguste Bissette (09 July 1795 – 22 January 1858) titled, “Une Cause célèbre coloniale, Mme Marlet, de la commune de Robert, Martinique.”

In 1779, a 180 page book was published in French. with detailed footnotes, by publishers in London (England) titled, “Cause Celebre Contenant L’assassinat commis le dix-neuf de Decembre 1771, en la personne de Mademoiselle Warrimont, de la Ville de Visez, au Pays de Liege.” In English, this reads, “Cause Celebre Containing the Assassination Committed the Nineteenth of December 1771 on Miss Warrimont from the Village of Viset in Liege.”

At the end of the search, the phrase originated with the 37-volume compilation of famous legal cases in France titled, “Nouvelles Causes Célèbres” published in 1763. This was a collection of reports of well-known French court decisions from the 17th and 18th centuries, and prior to the publication of this series, Idiomation was unable to find a previously published case of the expression.

The expression — and the celebration of sensationalization as well perhaps — is therefore pegged to 1763 thanks to the title of the series.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Language | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

If Worse Comes To Worst

Posted by Admin on February 13, 2021

Last week, Idiomation took on the benefit of the doubt. The opposite to that is to assume the worst, and worse yet is if worse comes to worst! But where did the expression if worse comes to worst come from and what does it really mean?  It means if the worst that could possibly happen actually does happen, then you have gone from whatever your current situation is to an even worse situation. In fact, it’s gone to the very worst situation possible.

Now you may have heard the expression as if worse comes to worse and you may have heard the expression as if worst come to worst as well, and at the end of the day, the three expressions are mild variations of the other two.

In the July 2004 article “It’s The Economy, Right? Guess Again” published in the New York Times and written by Louis Uchitelle that addressed the issue of whether then-campaigning Senator John Kerry’s comments on an Administration under his leadership was sound. Considering what John Kerry had to say on cutting the deficit, budget surpluses, and recreating the economy of the Bill Clinton years, the journalist reported John Kerry’s words as spoken and presented them for the loud comments they were.

“Health care is sacrosanct,” Mr. Kerry said in a telephone interview, offering the most explicit commitment to date to a program that he estimates would cost $650 billion. That is an amount greater than the cost of all his other economic proposals combined.

“Listen,” he said, “if worse comes to worst, you make adjustments accordingly in other priorities.”

And not in health care? Mr. Kerry says that he will not have to face that choice, and that in his overall economic plan there is leeway for deficit reduction and expanded, subsidized health insurance.

The Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro (TN) ran an article in their 09 November 1941 edition with the expression. The interviewee was a man by the name of Sterling Owen ‘Dump’ Edmonds (28 March 1871 – 14 March 1954) and following in his father’s footsteps, he was a mastermind in mechanics.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Sterling’s father was more than just a mechanic in Eagleville. He also owned and operating a funeral home, a grist mill, a blacksmith shop, and a grain hauling business all at the same time.  He said in 1911 he got the idea to invent a trailer truck, and then he went ahead and built a trailer truck. Then he patented the idea in 1916. It was the kind of invention that interested the government, and because of that, his trailer truck idea was used by the U.S. Government during the first World War.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: In 1916, Sterling Edmonds filed a worldwide patent for a six-wheel truck. In 1917, Sterling Edmonds filed his patent for automotive towage. In 1932, he created the So-Easy Jacks for big trucks.  He also came up with a great many other inventions including a revolving sign with cylinders at filling stations, the automatic lipstick tube, hydraulic lifts for dump trucks, a revolving rural mailbox, milk coolers and insulated receptacles for milk bottles, and he suggested guardrails on roads.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Sterling Edmonds was married to Ethel Morrow whose uncle, Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was the founder of the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg (TN).

When he was interviewed in 1941 by Mary B. Hughes for her article, “Eagleville Inventor of Trailer Truck Gave Patent to U.S. In World War I” he had this to say about his then-most recent invention the pressure pump, and the difficulties he had obtaining materials due to the war.

“But,” says Edmonds philosophically, “if worse comes to worst, I’ll dismiss it from my mind and invent something else.”

As yet, however, business at the Edmonds shop in the Eagleville community hasn’t felt the pinch of priorities. “My pumps are going at the rate of two a day and I have more orders than I can fill,” commented the crossroads Edison.

The idiom has been around quite some time, and is used by English trader, writer, pamphleteer and spy, Daniel Defoe (1660 – 24 April 1731) in his book “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” which was published on 25 April 1719. This passage is found in Chapter XIV titled, “A Dream Realised.”

I looked upon my present condition as the most miserable that could possibly be; that I was not able to throw myself into anything but death, that could be called worse; and if I reached the shore of the main I might perhaps meet with relief, or I might coast along, as I did on the African shore, till I came to some inhabited country, and where I might find some relief; and after all, perhaps I might fall in with some Christian ship that might take me in: and if the worst came to the worst, I could but die, which would put an end to all these miseries at once. Pray note, all this was the fruit of a disturbed mind, an impatient temper, made desperate, as it were, by the long continuance of my troubles, and the disappointments I had met in the wreck I had been on board of, and where I had been so near obtaining what I so earnestly longed for—somebody to speak to, and to learn some knowledge from them of the place where I was, and of the probable means of my deliverance.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: The first edition of Defoe’s book credited Robinson Crusoe as the author which, of course, led readers to believe Robinson Crusoe was real and that the book was a detailed accounting of true incidents that happened to Robinson Kreutznaer over the course of 28 years.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Defoe was a bit of a bad boy before publishing “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” His small business went bankrupt in 1692, and his political pamphleteering got him in so much trouble he was arrested and tried for seditious libel in 1703. This may explain why the first edition stated it was written by Robinson Crusoe.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Defoe only began writing fiction once he turned 60. He died in London one day after the 12th anniversary of the publication of “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.”

Going back two more generations to English poet, translator, playwright, and literary critic, John Dryden (19 August 1631 – 12 May 1700) wrote “Sir Martin Mar-All, Or, The Geign’d Innocence: A Comedy” published in 1668. In Act II, Scene I, Lady Dupe and Mrs. Christian are speaking and the dialogue makes use of the idiom.

LADY DUPE
Therefore you desire his lordship, as he loves you, of which you are confident, henceforward to forbear his visits to you.

MRS. CHRISTIAN
But how, if he should take me at my word?

LADY DUPE
Why, if the worst come to the worst, he leaves you an honest woman, and there’s an end on’t: But fear not that; hold out his messages, and then he’ll write, and that is it, my bird, which you must drive it to: Then all his letters will be such ecstasies, such vows and promises, which you must answer short and simply, yet still ply out of them your advantages.

MRS. CHRISTIAN
But, madam! he’s in the house, he will not write.

Thomas Middleton (1580 – 4 July 1627) wrote the Jacobean play, “The Phoenix” which was performed at Court before King James on 20 February 1604. Middleton, along with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, were among the most prolific and successful of playwrights during the time period.  In his play, “The Phoenix” in Act III, Scene I Proditor tells Phoenix his plan to pretend that the duke’s son plotted to murder the duke which will then allow Proditor’s men to murder the prince. From there things only go downhill! This prompts the inclusion of this in the dialogue:

The worst comes to the worst.

But it was in the pamphlet “Have With You to Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriel Harveys Hunt Is Up” written by Thomas Nashe (November 1567 – 1601) printed in 1596 that has the first published version of the expression. It was written as a response to Gabriel Harvey’s 1593 pamphlet that attacked Thomas Nashe. To make it absolutely clear to any interested party who, specifically, Thomas Nashe wrote about, the author included Gabriel Harvey’s birthplace of Saffron Walden in the title.  In this instance, Nashe was comparing dying by drowning to dying by burning.

O, you must not conclude so desperate, for every tossing billow brings not death in the mouth of it; besides, if the worst come to the worst, a good swimmer may do much,
whereas fire rapit omnia secum, sweepeth clean where it seizeth.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: The pamphlet also includes a reference to the line Fee-fi-fo-fum and identifies it as an old rhyme with obscure origins back in 1596!

For Thomas Nashe to use the expression so easily in his pamphlet in 1596, it had to be an expression that was known and understood by those who read such pamphlets, and as such while the first published version is 1596, it’s a safe determination that the expression was around in the 1550s if not earlier.

In many ways, the expression if worse comes to worst brings to mind the idiom when push comes to shove which, it would appear, is the next idiom to be hunted down on Idiomation.

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Benefit of the Doubt

Posted by Admin on February 6, 2021

When someone is given the benefit of the doubt, it means they are allowing for the possibility that what is being purported as factual may actually be true even if it doesn’t sound like it may be. In other words, no matter how outlandish something being claimed might sound, accepting it at face value for the time being is how what is being claimed is interpreted.

In fact, Paul Faulkner of the University of Sheffield published a paper in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies in February 2018 which was titled, “Giving The Benefit of the Doubt.” The abstract began thusly:

Faced with evidence that what a person said is false, we can nevertheless trust them and so believe what they say – choosing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly notable when the person is a friend, or someone we are close to. Towards such persons, we demonstrate a remarkable epistemic partiality. We can trust, and so believe, our friends even when the balance of the evidence suggests that what they tell us is false. And insofar as belief is possible, it is also possible to acquire testimonial knowledge on those occasions when the friends know what they tell us. This paper seeks to explain these psychological and epistemological possibilities.

In 2000, the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 was passed (Public Law 106-475, 106th Congress, 2nd Session) in which the following is found:

SEC. 4. DECISION ON CLAIM.

Section 5107 of title 38, United States Code, is amended to read as follows:

“Sec. 5107. Claimant responsibility; benefit of the doubt

“(a) Claimant Responsibility.  Except as otherwise provided by law, a claimant has the responsibility to present and support a claim for benefits under laws administered by the Secretary.
“(b) Benefit of the Doubt.  The Secretary shall consider all information and lay and medical evidence of record in a case before the Secretary with respect to benefits under laws administered by the Secretary. When there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter, the Secretary shall give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant.”

Back in 1987, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (15 March 1933 – 18 September 2020) stated in the Federal Judicial, Pattern Criminal Jury Instruction 17-18 at instruction 21 that the following was true:

There are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty, and in criminal cases the law does not require proof that overcomes every possible doubt. If based on your consideration of the evidence, you are firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged, you must find him guilty. If on the other hand, you think there is a real possibility that he is not guilty, you must give him the benefit of the doubt and find him not guilty.

In 1910, American novelist and social activist Jack London (12 January 1876 – 11 November 1915) saw his short story “The Benefit of the Doubt” published.  In this story, the benefit of the doubt is a central theme as seen in this passage.

Both Patsy’s attorney and the Prosecuting Attorney rested their cases, letting everything go before the Court without argument. Watson protested against this, but was silenced when the Prosecuting Attorney told him that Public Prosecutor and knew his business.

“Patrick Horan has testified that he was in danger of his life and that he was compelled to defend himself,” Judge Witberg’s verdict began. “Mr. Watson has testified to the same thing. Each has sworn that the other struck the first blow; each has sworn that the other made an unprovoked assault on him. It is an axiom of the law that the defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt. A very reasonable doubt exists. Therefore, in the case of the People Versus Carter Watson the benefit of the doubt is given to said Carter Watson and he is herewith ordered discharged from custody. The same reasoning applies to the case of the People Versus Patrick Horan. He is given the benefit of the doubt and discharged from custody. My recommendation is that both defendants shake hands and make up.”

In the years leading up to Jack London’s short story and in subsequent years, many authors have thought “The Benefit of the Doubt” to be a wonderful title for their writing. This includes, Mary Clare Wilson Spenser (2 May 1842 – 4 October 1923) whose first book by that name was published in 1882.

General Sir Charles James Napier (10 August 1782 – 29 August 1853), in writing to Keith Young on 21 February 1844, expressed concern for a man accused of murdering a European woman especially in light of the fact that the accused was a local. The man was subject to Sio Kari law under the then-colonial government of the Sindh region in southern Pakistan. Of this particular case, he wrote:

On this occasion both Captain Preedy and yourself have decided that there is no proof against this man — the murderer of Mrs. Barnes. I shall therefore, as you are so satisfied and so impressed, give him the benefit [of the doubt] at your request. But by this weakness, for such it is, I am guilty of having murdered every man I have hanged in this and other countries; for so help God! in the whole course of a long life, and the experience of some thousands of trials, I never saw proofs more perfect of guilt, except where the crime was avowed, than those against Buska Chandia. As to its afterwards appearing that he was innocent, I should not believe it if all Scinde swore to it. I am quite ready to take that chance; but as you seem to consider that Preedy tried him, and you are both, I consider, blind to facts, he shall escape.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: General Sir Charles James Napier was a Major General of the Bombay Army where he led the military conquest of Sindh before becoming the Governor of Sindh as well as the Commander-in-Chief of India.

Multiple dictionaries indicate that the expression is from the 1850s and from General Sir Charles James Napier’s correspondence, this supports the claim the expression was in use — or implied in certain circumstances — during his time in Bombay.

However, in France, there is a court record of a seamstress named Marie Maire who was accused of infanticide in 1786. While Marie Maire admitted to having miscarried a child in her fourth or fifth month of pregnancy (she wasn’t certain how long she had been pregnant), she denied being responsible for the child’s death. But no body could be found to substantiate the accusation against her so when her lawyer urged the judges to “give her the benefit of the doubt in light of the fact that public opinion always exaggerates … public clamor rarely leads to truth” the parliament of Dijon acquitted her of the charges against her on 13 February 1786.

This was reported in “Causes célèbres” published in 1787. The case of Marie Maire was listed as Case 511 and is found on pages 188 and 189.

In the case of Rex v Preston in 1770, the closing arguments and the judge’s instructions to the jury have never been found in the case of Captain Preston who, along with eight other soldiers, was arrested and charged with firing into a crowd of protesting Bostonians on 5 March 1770 which resulted in the death of five people.

John Adams (yes, the same John Adams who was the second President of the United States of America) argued in his closing arguments that “the best rule in doubtful cases, is, rather to incline to acquittal than conviction … If you doubt the prisoner’s guilt, never declare him guilty.”

Robert Treat Paine was the lawyer arguing for the Crown, and in his closing statements (per Volume 3 of the Legal Papers of John Adams) and Paine agreed that jurors would have to acquit if they had any doubts, but if they had any doubts, those doubts had to be reasonable.

If therefore in the examination of this Cause the Evidence is not sufficient to Convince you beyond reasonable Doubt of the Guilt of all or any of the Prisoners by the Benignity and Reason of the Law you will acquit them, but if the Evidence be sufficient to convince you of their Guilt beyond reasonable Doubt the Justice of the Law will require you to declare them Guilty.

So while there are no records of the closing arguments or the judge’s instructions to the jury in this case from 1770, it’s doubtful John Adams — the future President of the United States of America — would misrepresent what Robert Treat Paine said in making his closing arguments to the Court.

Interestingly enough, the standard of reasonable doubt was neither new nor innovative, and existed in traditional English law. So the concept dates back to considerably longer than most people realize.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version or variation of the expression and therefore it is pegged at 1786 in France with a serious acknowledgement to traditional English law which has been in place since the Norman Conquest of 1066.

 

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