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Etymology of Great Legal Words: Hearsay

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By George Khoury, Esq. on June 29, 2018 11:10 AM

For the number of times we lawyers have written, copied and pasted, and calmly exclaimed the word hearsay, most lawyers probably haven't stopped to think about the origins of the term.

If you haven't, then you may have just figured it came from heresy, as the two words sound similar, and heresy is like religious and stuff, so it's probably older. Surprisingly, the two words aren't related, and the whole heretics and heresy stuff all came after hearsay (or "to hear say"). As the Grammarphobia blog puts it, the words aren't even cousins.

So, What's Up With Hearsay?

It's so surprisingly simple that it's almost not shocking that the word, or more appropriately, the phrase, dates back to before the year 1000. 

Hearsay comes from Middle English and the combination of two words: hear and say. So literally hearsay is a compound of 'to hear someone say.' Other sources also credit the phrase to the Middle French phrase par ouir dire, which roughly translates to: to hear someone say.

The term came into being as one word rather than a two word phrase around the 15th century approximately, and found it's way into legal use as 'hearsay evidence' by 1670. And from there, it has become the bane of every law student as they try to figure out exactly what the truth of the matter asserted means, and what is or isn't an out of court statement made by an unavailable declarant.

Then, Where'd Heresy Come From?

While the two words elicit similar emotions when you point your finger and exclaim them at people, heresy actually comes from the Ancient Greek word hairesis, which means heresy and basically had the same theological or philosophical context that it does today.

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