Recap: unlawful, illegal, illegitimate, illicit, immoral, unlicensed, criminal

Posted on Tue 16 Aug 2011 @ 12.01am UTC

WE HAVE REACHED THE END of our series on these legally related words:

Let’s recap in a concise manner (boldfacings are principal meanings):

Unlawful is something that is ‘against the law,’ specifically not according to law or not sanctioned by legal principles (to take unlawful advantage of the trading situation).

Illegal is also something that is ‘against the law,’ specifically, in violation of a statute or some other codified rule (an illegal seizure of property, an illegal block in football).

Illegitimate can be highly defamatory (an actionable word) and means:

  1. born out of wedlock (an illegitimate child)
  2. invalid according to law (an illegitimate action in court)
  3. unjust, improper or unconstitution (a ruthless and illegitimate regime)

Illicit (originally meaning simply ‘not permitted’) now often means:

  1. against accepted morality or social custom (illicit sexual relations)
  2. (Law) not legally permitted: often applies to matters regulated by law with specific emphasis on the way things are carried out (illicit conversion of property, an illicit attempt to control the market)

Immoral can be highly defamatory (an actionable word like illegitimate) and generally means ‘not moral’ but specifically:

  1. against or violating morality (immoral attitudes to life)
  2. sexually unacceptable (immoral personal conduct)
  3. tending to corrupt or resulting from moral corruption (an immoral film, immoral earnings from prostitution)
  4. unscrupulous or unethical (immoral trading in medicine)

Unlicensed is:

  1. having no licence, usually a licence issued by an authority or a permission recognised in law (an unlicensed restaurant, unlicensed driving)
  2. done without recognised permission (the loanshark started dealing in unlicensed loans)
  3. unaccredited or unauthorised (the boxer had talks with unlicensed promoters)
  4. unrestrained and lawless (unlicensed behaviour of rioters)

Criminal has many ordinary and legal meanings, plus many related forms. At the most basic, criminal means ‘relating to crime.’ Specifically, it means

  1. having committed or guilty of crime (criminal activities, a criminal act)
  2. (Law) related to crime or its punishment (criminal court, criminal lawyer, criminal prosecution), usually distinguished as criminal law vs. civil law
  3. deplorably senseless or foolish (a criminal waste of good food)
  4. grossly overpriced (they charge absolutely criminal prices)

Be careful that words that spring from criminal do not always have obvious meanings:

Criminally means:

  1. in a criminal or delinquent way (criminally insane)
  2. subject to criminal prosecution (criminally liable, they had been criminally negligent, people are criminally responsible by the age of 14)
  3. shamefully’ (the pay was criminally poor)

Non-criminal means not criminal but usually used in relation to some legal process or principle (non-criminal remedies for crime victims, non-criminal illegal aliens). In the same way, non-criminally means ‘in a way consistent with non-criminally proceedings.’

Quasi-criminal means ‘resembling a criminal nature but not really so.’ In law, it means ‘has some but not all the qualities of a criminal proceeding,’ but it is usually a legal term of art (a term with a specific meaning under specific circumstances) to mean a court’s right to punish for actions or omissions as if they were criminal (contempt of court is a quasi-criminal penalty, the court issued quasi-criminal orders for his detention). Likewise, quasi-criminally means ‘in a way usually for quasi-criminal proceedings.’

Semi-criminal can be a derogatory term because it means partially or incompletely criminal or half-criminal, usually in reference to people’s character or conduct (the lower classes are vicious and semi-criminal).

Subcriminal is a term in psychology, psychiatry and sociology that means just under the threshold of criminality, especially in describing or diagnosing antisocial personality disorder (a subcriminal sociopath).

Uncriminal is virtually the same as non-criminal, but it is ambiguous and should be avoided in use.

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© Learn English or Starve, 2011. Image via PlanetPOV.

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