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How we are changing a word

The word “justice” has been a highly powerful and prevalent word for several centuries. We tend to see it more scrawled across a ragged piece of cardboard during protests than we do in literature or on buildings. The word is definitely tossed about by both sides of some of today’s issues but I doubt that few know what it really means.

As you know, if you have been reading me for any length of time, I am big on definitions and the meaning of words to the point of authoring a book a few years ago on the topic.

The word “JUSTICE” is one of the more interesting words I have studied.

Just a few short weeks ago the world wanted justice for Tyre Nichols who was beaten senselessly by law enforcement officers, the video of we all watched in horror, yet the same week protests were held for justice in the shooting of an activist who drew a gun on law enforcement and fired at them several times to which law enforcement returned fire killing him.

The same week. The same word. Justice.

I live for etymology (the study of the origin of words). The word “justice” is derived from the Anglo-Norman and Old French civilizations. Originally, the word was written justis, jostise, justiz, or justyse. Many words that originated from the Anglo-Norman and Central French were introduced due to the Norman Conquest in the year 1066, which completely changed the whole course of the English language.

Due to the invasion of England by the Normans, the Normans eventually lost their Scandinavian tongue, and French became the essential language in the civilization and eventually became the Norman French language. Because of the Norman conquest, words like “justice” became alive.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “justice” means the “administration of law or equity” with several secondary meanings. Some of these meanings include “maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power; assignment of deserved reward or punishment,” “punishment of an offender or retribution deemed appropriate for a crime,” “a place of execution, a gallows,” and “the administration of law”.

While each of these secondary meanings are slightly different, one can easily see that the differences are slight and the overall meaning of the word is quite clear. These definitions have been in existence since the late 1100’s.

Although the word has been used like this for several centuries, in the past decade, the word “justice” has been tossed about quite a bit more in the last decade.

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, which is the online search engine that records words and phrases and how often they were used in a specific time period, justice has always been commonly used, but its use continues to increase yearly.

On the Google Ngram Viewer, which only reaches back to the 1500s, there is a constant but gradual increase and decrease of the word; its usage often fluctuates through time.

In the beginning of the 1500s, “justice” was used very seldom, but it shifted intensively until the year 1566. In that year, the usage of this word dramatically increased, and it is speculated that this was due to a surge of witch-hunts that took place in modern Europe and colonial America. The fear of witchcraft practices by women began in the mid-1400s, but the height of hysteria and skepticism reached its peak in the 1500s and eventually ended in the 1700s.

According to Google Ngram Viewer there were other minor fluctuations in the use of this word in the 1700s and early 1800s. It was used heavily in 1764, 1792, and 1812. There are several reasons throughout history why this word possibly increased in usage. If you know your history, you might recognize thjose years as coinciding with wars like the French and Indian War, the French Revolution, and the War of 1812. These major events could have caused the rise in its use.

There is not another major spike in the usage of the word “justice” until the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. This sudden increase is likely due to many cases of injustice toward African Americans.

The injustice mostly included segregation and the constant fight and battle to be treated as equals. One of the major turning points was the death of Emmett Till and the lack of justice for him or his family. In the Google Ngram, it is obvious that the use of the word “justice” increased drastically due to the era of segregation, inequality, and injustice. It possibly grew due to the constant protest and rebuttal of upset African Americans yearning for peace and justice.

Although the Google Ngram stops at the year 2008, the rise of the word was increasing considerably it would be interesting to see the numbers on the last five to ten years due to the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the police brutality cases that have dominated the news cycle.

The word now belongs to both the individual and the group and it carries more meanings than could be documented in a dictionary. Each individual, each group, each culture and each event creates a new definition for the word. Over the course of the last decade we have seen the definition change from “enforcement of a law or penalty” to “changing the law”. We have witnessed the definition change from “retribution” to “revenge”. Each sign, each t-shirt, each group, each website, each letter, each post…all different.

Perhaps we will never again know the true definition of the word “justice” and it is amazing how we continue to change not only history but the future. It does present a problem for our Department of Justice however.

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