Know your words: Criminal

Posted on Mon 15 Aug 2011 @ 12.01am UTC

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. The word criminal is nearly always associated with the law, especially in regards to criminal offences and the proceedings and punishment for them.

The word criminal dates from 1350-1400 and comes from the Middle English and 11th-century Anglo-French criminel, which is ultimately from the Late Latin criminalis (‘pertaining to crime’) from the Latin root crimen, the genitive of criminis (‘crime’).

criminal (adj)

  1. of the nature, involving, relating to or guilty of crime: felonious, unlawful, illegal
  2. pertaining to crime or its punishment: criminal court, criminal lawyer, criminal proceeding, criminal prosecution, criminal code
  3. senseless, foolish, deplorable: a criminal waste of good food
  4. exhorbitant, grossly overpriced: they charge absolutely criminal prices

Basic antonyms (opposites) are lawful and innocent.

Squeeze human nature into the straitjacket of
criminal justice and crime will appear. (1) (Sense 1)
(Karl Kraus (1874–1936), Austrian satirist, in “The Riehl Case,”
Morality and Criminal Justice, 1908)

Criminal law (or criminal justice) is distinguished from civil law
in English since at least the late 15th century.
(2) (Sense 1)

The National Association of Reformed Offenders, in association with
the Association of British Insurers, has this month produced an insurance
guide for consumers with criminal convictions. (2A) (Sense 2)
(Staveley Head Limited)

A criminal [sense 2] lawyer is not a lawyer with criminal [sense 1] tendencies. He
is someone 
who specialises in criminal [sense 1] law. There are dumbos in this world
who are 
actually so literal-minded that they believe a criminal lawyer is criminal
[sense 1]Some might be, but that’s not what it means. It’s a criminal [sense 3]
waste of education on these bozos, who say a vice mayor is a mayor of vice,
not an assistant mayor like the rest of us would understand it. (3)

From criminal we get the related adjectives non-criminal, quasi-criminal, semi-criminalsubcriminal and uncriminal.

Non-criminal (adj) means ‘not criminal,’ often used in relation to some legal procedure or principle (e.g. non-criminal proceedings, non-criminal remedies for crime victims, non-criminal illegal aliens):

People with mental illnesses often have non-criminal contacts with
the police, such as some attempting suicide, a patient requiring an escort
to a hospital, [or] a neighbor calling 9-1-1 to report a person in distress. (4)

The case of State v. Gut, 13 Minn. 341 (1868) held that a soldier killing
an enemy in battle is usually non-criminal homicide, but in some circumstances
it may be, such as a soldier killing a non-combative prisoner of war.

Obama on non-criminal illegal aliens: We don’t want to
deport them; ‘We want then to succeed.’ (6)

Quasi-criminal (adj) means ‘kind of or resembling criminal but not really so‘ (from the Latin quasi, as if, almost as it were, analogous to: Black’s Law Dictionary). But this is misleading because quasi-criminal has an ordinary and a highly technical legal meaning: see ASIDE below.

Semi-criminal means ‘partly or incompletely criminal in nature or character.’ It was (and is) mainly a sociological or socioeconomic term of classification.

  • The “lowest class” of residents in Victorian-era London were described as “vicious, semi-criminal” in a topographical map of income and social class by Charles Booth in his Inquiry into Life and Labour of the People of London, volume 1 (London: Macmillan, 1886-1903) (London School of Economics).

Subcriminal is a (somewhat ill-defined) technical term in pychiatry and psychology to describe or diagnose psychopathy (now antisocial personality disorder), e.g. subcriminal psychopathy. A sociopath (psychopath before the 1930s) is a person who has an abnormal lack of empathy (understanding and compassion for others) because of an inability to form human attachment (Helfgott 2000). The subcriminal sociopath, masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal, behaves in a way that is technically not illegal but violates conventional ethical standard, so that his general conduct does not cross over into the threshold of criminality, hence ‘subcriminal’ (Bluze 2007-10). Despite the similarity of the names, psychopaths are rarely psychotic (Scientific American 2007).

  • We used to describe subcriminal psychopathy by graphically expressive labels such as ‘madness without delirium‘ and ‘moral insanity‘ (up to the 1800s) and ‘snakes in suits‘ (the current favourite). However, psychopath and sociopath have always been a sort of catch-all, widely and loosely applied by experts and laymen alike to violent and unstable criminals. Since the 1980s, the two terms (and their diagnostic conditions) have been expanded to include certain types of managers who regularly show cult-leader qualities: the needing followers and trying to completely enslave their victims (Bezroukov 1996-2011). (Does this sound like your boss already?)

Uncriminal means ‘not criminal‘ and is something of a pointless word, and you should avoid using it.

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Quasi-criminal (adj)

This odd word doesn’t mean what it looks to mean.

Ordinarily, quasi (or quasi- as a prefix) means as if, almost as it were, seemingly, in part, or analogous to — almost but not quite. It works like the prefix semi-.

Quasi is used in legal phraseology to indicate that one subject resembles another in certain characteristics when compared, but there are intrinsic and material differences between them, for instance, quasi contract. It is exclusively a term of classification (Black’s Law Dictionary).

But quasi-criminal has two very different meanings:

  • (Ordinary) trumped-up, unreal, unbelievable (often said of accusations or charges of offence in a derogatory or unpleasant sense)
  • (Law) a lawsuit or equity proceeding that ‘has some (but not all) of the qualities of a criminal prosecution‘ and it refers to ‘a court’s right to punish for actions or omissions as if they were criminal’

Kafka’s works often describe ridiculous and dystopian situations
in which innocent or unsuspecting people are arrested or
imprisoned on wildly quasi-criminal charges. (7) (Sense 1)

The simplest example would be a civil court punishing a person
for misdoings by issuing orders as ‘quasi-criminal‘ and sending
the person to gaol [AmE: jail] for contempt of court. (8) (Sense 2)

In quasi-criminal proceedings, for example, a court has the right to punish actions or omissions of a party in a child-support case as if it was criminal, penalising the parent with a gaol-time sentence. In some cases, a court may impose asset forfeiture or another penalty (Ballentine’s Law Dictionary, p. 450).

Quasi-criminal proceedings include a wide variety of matters, including:

  • prosecution for a violation of law, offence or ordinance that is not also a violation of a criminal statute (i.e. wrongs against the public punishable through fines but are not usually indictable offences): especially a motor vehicle law, parking ticket or traffic ticket (via).
  • psychiatric matters, e.g. civil confinement, mental hygiene commitments and similar proceedings
  • regulatory offences (a.k.a. administrative infractions), e.g. health department violations, hunting or fishing without a licence, and ‘driving while intoxicated or ability impaired’ (DWI or DWAI) when such is not a summary offence (AmE: misdemeanour)
  • family court actions, e.g. ‘person in need of supervision’ (‘PINS’), truancy, juvenile delinquency, child support, paternity or filiation, child custody and parenting time (AmE: child visitation), divorce action, family offence petition
  • equity proceedings, e.g. writ, bankruptcy, contempt of court, fraud, qui tam (a ‘whistleblower’ action by a non-government-affiliated individual on behalf of the government), etc.
  • zoning laws
  • internment
  • detention

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criminal (n)

The word criminal has been used as a noun since the 1620s:

  1. a person who has committed a crime
  2. a person who is guilty or convicted of a crime
  3. a person having a criminal nature or tendency: malefactor, evildoer, transgressor, culprit, felon, crook, hoodlum, gangster

From this word we get the related nouns non-criminal and supercriminal.

A supercriminal is a supervillian (fem. supervillianess) — a very skilled or powerful criminal — a variant of the villian character type and commonly found in comic books, action movies and science fiction.

criminally (adv)

This adverb should be carefully used, as it can be defamatory and actionable:

  1. in a criminal or delinquent manner: criminally insane
  2. to be subject to criminal prosecutioncriminally liable, the hospital staff had been criminally negligentthey are criminally responsible from the age of 16
  3. shamefully: the pay was criminally poor

In sense 3, ‘shamefully’ is what the Spaniards would say vergonzosamente (as in El sueldo era vergonzosamente bajo, the pay was criminally poor).

Related adverbs non-criminally, quasi-criminally, subscriminally, supercriminally and uncriminally are all generally used in a legal or some other technical context.

  • non-criminally: in a manner usually for or consistent with non-criminal proceedings
  • quasi-criminally: in a manner usually for or consistent with quasi-criminal proceedings
  • subcriminally: in a way just under the threshold of criminality
  • supercriminally: in the manner of a supervillian (Universalium 2010)
  • uncriminally: in a way that is not criminal

criminality (n)

Criminality entered the English language in 1605-15 from the French criminalité, which is from the Mediaeval Latin criminalitas, from criminis, ‘crime.’

This is the usual noun to describe the quality or state of being criminal or having a criminal nature. It is often used in legal phraseology and means:

  1. the state/quality of being criminal or having a criminal nature: the criminality of his act
  2. (rare) a criminal act or practice (usually in plural)

A most corrupt-prone and secretive activity of policing in so-called Anglo
liberal democracies continues to be the interrogation of secluded suspects
in the metropolitan police station. For many decades, citizens arrested and
interrogated by police have complained of police brutality and criminality
(i.e. fabricating or coercing confessions). Police criminality in the West is
so chronically rampant [that] it hardly raises an eyebrow. (9)
(Knol, Police Brutality & Criminality in Interrogating Citizens, 2009)

For the ‘superior morality’ of which we hear so much, we too would desire
to be thankful: at the same time, it were but blindness to deny that this
‘superior morality’ is properly rather an ‘inferior criminality‘ produced not
by greater love of Virtue, but by greater perfection of Police; and of that
far subtler and stronger Police, called Public Opinion. (10)
(Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), Scottish essayist and historian,
in ‘Signs of the Times,’ Edinburgh Review, no. 98, 1829)

The evils of unemployment have increased criminality in the inner cities. (11)

Natural-law theory therefore distinguishes between ‘criminality‘ (which derives
from human nature) and ‘illegality’ (which originates with the interests of those
in power). Lawyers sometimes express the two concepts with the phrases
malum in se and malum prohibitum respectively. They regard a ‘crime malum
in se‘ as inherently criminal; whereas a ‘crime malum prohibitum‘ (the argument
goes) counts as criminal only because the law has decreed it so. (12)

He could do what he liked, with all his cleverness to help him, so long as I
should continue to defer to the old tradition of the criminality of those
caretakers of the young who minister to superstitions and fears.
(Henry James (1843-1916), Turn of The Screw, 1898)

‘Irregularity of Figure’ means with us the same as, or more than, a combination
of moral obliquity and criminality with you, and is treated accordingly. (14)
(Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926), Flatland, 1884)

The related form is non-criminality (n), meaning ‘the non-criminal nature of‘ something.

criminalism (n)

This noun means

  • an act or action having the character of a crime (-Ologies & -Isms, The Gale Group Inc., 2008)

It can be taken as a synonym for criminality.

criminalness (n)

This rare and dated noun is a synonym for criminality.

The criminalness, rebellion, transgression, the disobedience that is in sin, […] (15)
(John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, published in The Works of John Owen
(William H. Goold, editor), 1655, page 515)

There is a great deal of difference as to the criminalness of false persuasions
upon this account: the same error which one person may hold very pardonably,
(as being, without much fault of his own, either through weakness of parts, or
prejudice from education, or want or opportunity of knowing better, unavoidably,
in a manner, led into it; I say, that very same error,) may be extremely dangerous
in other persons, that have better parts, […] (16)
(John Sharp, The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Sharp, 1754,
volume III, 5th edition)

The Constitution of the United States permits the suffrage of women […].
Under it legally constituted women — as to age, freedom from criminalness, etc.
— may vote for all officers from president to township supervisor.
(W. S. Harwood, “Constitutional Suffrage for Women,” North American Review,
1896, vol. 162, no. 474, p. 632)

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A recap of all the words covered in short, concise form.

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© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: ‘Criminal Minds’ via James Randi Educationa Foundation ♦ Crown Court signs via ♦ Pulp Fiction via Layoutsparks ♦ London riots via Image News ♦ ‘When thugs cry’ via GraphicsHunt ♦ Man with shotgun via ♦ ‘Graffiti is a fun crime’ via True Crime Junkie.

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