Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week

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Word of the Week

I remember a time when some people said you shouldn’t read fairy tales to children, because Gretel shoves the wicked witch into her own oven and slams the door shut behind her, and the Big Bad Wolf is sliced open so that Little Red Riding Hood and Grandma can get out, and Jack chops down the beanstalk with the Giant climbing down it, and so on. “They’re too violent,” the people said, wringing their hands. Well, but they were fairy tales, and the children loved them, because it’s as Chesterton said, children love justice, because they are innocent. We grownups favor mercy, because — because we’ve gone a long way down the river since we were children!

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So our Word of the Week is justice, and it’s an interesting and important word indeed. If somebody says, “Good and bad don’t really exist, because that’s all a matter of opinion,” he’s just said, though he’s probably not aware of it, that there is no such thing as justice. But a bright child can tell you that just because you’re permitted to do something, that doesn’t make it right, and just because a law says you mustn’t do something, that doesn’t make it wrong. What’s legal is one thing, conforming to the law: ultimately from Latin lex, which suggested what you picked out in words, for some purpose or other. People choose their laws. You might also pick out limbs and branches for firewood, and that’s what’s behind Latin lignum, wood — as in English lignite, the low-grade brown coal that, so to speak, hasn’t gone the whole way from wood to rock. So much for picking and choosing. But we don’t pick and choose what’s just. The Roman Stoics gave us the notion of the ius gentium, the law of the nations, not because the nations got together and picked out what they thought would work well, but because all people everywhere should recognize certain standards of right and wrong that govern one nation’s dealings with another. Lex is man-made; ius comes from the gods, and is holy.

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Like most of our words beginning with j, justice comes to us from the French, that is, from the Norman French — hard to imagine French Vikings, isn’t it? All kinds of English words having to do with law and its administration are of French origin, because for a good 300 years, the Normans and their descendants, who were in charge of things in England, still spoke French: judge, jury, law, trial, court, bailey, jail, payment, money, fine, and many more. The French word came from Latin iustitia, justice, and the root of that word, in our ancient parent language, Indo-European, suggested what you spoke or swore, as a kind of sacred oath. Those old Romans were pretty scrupulous about oaths. You had to speak them with just (notice the sense of the adverb here?) the right formula, so that if a priest stuttered, he’d have to start the whole thing all over again. Otherwise it wouldn’t be iustus

“Justice between Archangels Michael and Gabriel,” Jacobello Del Fiore. Public Domain.

Now here’s something I love about languages: you’ll get words that look very similar but have nothing to do with each other, such as English union and communion, and then you’ll get words that don’t look at all alike, but they’re cousins after all. Here’s a sentence for you. “Judge Griffith,” drawled the cowboy, “sent me to the hoosegow, but he was just makin’ sure he didn’t have to call up nary a jury.” I guess you’ll see that judge and jury are related to justice, and so is the adverb just. But what about hoosegow? What the heck is that? Well, it’s just from the western United States, close to Mexico, where a court, in Spanish, is called the juzgao — the hoosegow! Languages pick up a lot of words by mispronouncing what people hear from their neighbors, and then, if there’s writing, they spell it as they hear it with the rules that govern their own language’s spelling. It’s how Hawaiians got the name Kimo from English Jim, and the English got the name Floyd from mishearing Welsh Llwyd (meaning Gray). And speaking of the Welsh, the name Griffith is also a cousin of justice! Not the Griff part. That’s for the beast called the griffin. It was the -udd part, at the end, which you’d say sort of like -ith, with a soft th, and the i halfway between i and u, a very hard vowel for us English speakers to say or even to hear.

Ah well, let God not judge us by our grammar and our pronunciation! And let Him have mercy on us, too, because Hansels and Gretels we ain’t.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week
Stop by on Mondays to hear Tony discuss the word of the week, with etymologies, ad libs .. and pizzazz.
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