English Word Series: Justice

The word ‘justice’, meaning ‘the exercise of authority in vindication of right by assigning reward or punishment’ is over 860 years old (c. 1140 AD).  ‘Justice’ was once ‘justitia’ an Old French word that descended from Latin to mean ‘righteousness and equity’.  A similar word from the same Latin root was ‘justus’ meaning ‘upright, and just’.  When ‘justitia’ was adopted into Old English it was extremely simplified.  From the original Old French meanings that included, ‘uprightness, equity, vindication of right, court of justice, and judge’, Old English adopted the word only as a title for a judicial officer (c.1200).

By late Old English, ‘justice’ was used to describe the judicial administration of law or equity (first attested in 1303).  ‘Justice’ was also used to describe the people administering the law- ‘justice of the peace’ was first used in 1320, and ‘justice’ was used to describe the people working in the judicial assembly and court of justice, especially a judge presiding over or belonging to one of the superior courts.  By late Middle English ‘justice’ included the assignment of deserved reward or punishment, ‘They should have cut my head off.  That would have been justice’ (early 19th century).  By the early 19th century ‘justice’ was used to describe the infliction of punishment on an offender, especially capital punishment and execution.

By late 16th century ‘justice’ became personified.  The word became the name for a beautiful goddess portrayed in painting and sculpture holding balanced scales and a sword.  She appeared blindfolded to symbolize the impartiality of true justice.

It was not till the Middle English period that the word ‘justice’ began to extend its meaning like its original Old French predecessor.  The meaning of the word ‘justice’ began to be defined as the quality or principle of just dealing and conduct- this included integrity, impartiality, and fairness, ‘the elders in spite of their long-winded orations about justice were prone to deviousness and chicanery’.  By the middle of the 16th century ‘justice’ was adopted by theology to mean, ‘the state of being righteous’.  By the late 18th century, ‘justice’ was also used to express the conformity (of an action or thing) to moral right or to reason, ‘he was enraptured by what seemed the beautiful justice of the remark’ (early 19th century).