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Etymology of Great Legal Words: Acquittal

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By George Khoury, Esq. on July 24, 2018 7:00 AM

Though prosecutors might beg to differ on this one, for defense attorneys and defendants, perhaps the greatest legal word of all is acquittal. For the public, the term might be a bit mystifying, but for attorneys, an acquittal means it's over.

Given the significance of the word, you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that there's nearly a 1,000 years of history behind it. However, if you aren't well versed in Latin, or even if you are, the origin of the term acquittal might be illuminating, particularly from a present-day-archeologist-perspective.

Origin of Acquittal

The word acquittal, at its roots, is rather fascinating.

If you didn't know, the word acquit comes from 12th and 13th century French, and roughly translates as "to pay a debt (either for oneself or on behalf of another)," or to be freed from a debt or other obligation.

It might surprise you to learn that word "quit" actually used to mean "to pay." And "quit" comes from the Latin queo, which means "I am able." Somehow being "able" became being able "to pay."

It wasn't until the 14th and 15th centuries that acquittal began seeing use in English as we know it today, as being freed from legal process, or charges. However, it continued to see other uses well into the 19th and 20th centuries, but generally as time passed the usage became more and more confined to a person being released from liability and/or debt, rather than referencing paying a debt.

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