BL: libel
Posted: 26 September 2013 05:30 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Apropos of our recent threads on nasty epithets

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Posted: 26 September 2013 08:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Nice post.

A couple of minor nitpicks.  First, in the last sentence of the second paragraph, there is a reference to “men the document[...]” which presumably should be “mean the document[...].”

Second, FWIW, I would suggest inserting a “generally”, or similar qualifier, into the statement that slander is less serious than libel.  It can be, and probably usually is, but I wouldn’t say that that is categorically true.  I realize this is wordorigins.org and not legal-nitpicking.org, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that legal exactitude is required, but I think adding a “generally” wouldn’t hurt anything, and would eliminate any suggestion that this is an absolute.

Finally, on a somewhat (but not completely, I hope) off topic note, I read in a language log post a little while back (by one Pullum) that in the British legal system “truth” is not a defense to a charge of libel. [Edit: this appears to be wrong: I can’t find any article on LL by Pullum that said this.] This is a bit confusing to me, since, to me, untruthfulness is a necessary element of libel, so a true statement is, by definition, not a libel.  This makes me wonder whether there is a fundamental difference in how “libel” is defined by the US and British legal systems, or, alternatively, whether Pullum meant that truth is not necessarily an absolute defense: i.e., it is in some contexts, but not in others.

Again, I realize this isn’t an international law forum, and I bring this up here only because I wonder if “libel” has a slightly different meaning in general use in Britain than it does in the US, or whether the difference only extends to technical legal settings.  My sense is that, even in nontechnical use, calling a statement libelous, in the US, necessarily implies that it is untrue, and the BL entry seems consistent with that understanding.  Is the same true in Britain?

Also, I don’t mean to suggest that the BL entry should cover all of these nuances: I’m simply using the BL as a leap pad for that question.

[ Edited: 26 September 2013 03:55 PM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 26 September 2013 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Ï’ve made the first two corrections. Good catches. Thanks.

As to truth not being a defence in Britain, my understanding is that is not the case. Proof that the statement is true results in dismissal of the case. But in Britain, the burden of proof is on the defendant, and if the defence fails, the efforts to prove it false can be used to increase the penalty. In the US, it is up to the plaintiff to provide evidence that the statement is not true.

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Posted: 26 September 2013 12:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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If Wikipedia is to be believed (by no means a given) truth is not a complete defense for libel under English law.

Under English common law, proving the truth of the allegation was originally a valid defense only in civil libel cases. Criminal libel was construed as an offence against the public at large based on the tendency of the libel to provoke breach of peace, rather than being a crime based upon the actual defamation per se; its veracity was therefore considered irrelevant. Section 6 of the Libel Act 1843 allowed the proven truth of the allegation to be used as a valid defense in criminal libel cases, but only if the defendant also demonstrated that publication was for the “Public Benefit”.

Prior to 1843, the maxim that “the greater the truth, the greater the libel” apparently still had some force.

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Posted: 26 September 2013 03:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I attempted to find the Pullum article from LL, to see precisely what he said about libel and whether truth is a defense.  Embarrassingly to me, I found the article I was thinking of, but he didn’t say anything about truth not being a defense to libel within it.  I also could not find any other LL article by Pullum (or anybody else) saying such a thing.  The irony of me having made an incorrect written statement about what Pullum wrote about libel does not escape me.  [bangs head on desk].

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Posted: 26 September 2013 07:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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From Dave’s article:

A 1382 Wycliffite translation of the Vulgate Bible has Numbers 5:23 reading:

And the preest shal wryte in a libel thes cursid thingis.
(scribetque sacerdos in libello ista maledicta)

In this case, the “cursid things” are accusations of adultery made by a jealous husband, which may or may not be true. A 1388 Wycliffite translation renders the Latin libello as “litel book.”

I guess this brings new meaning to Chaucer’s epilogue to Troilus and Criseyde, though I’m not sure what. Somewhere, I seem to remember, Chaucer expressed some remorse over writing I such a lurid romance.

Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther God thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou n’envye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

[ Edited: 26 September 2013 07:46 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 27 September 2013 03:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I don’t think there’s anything to be read into that. “Go litel book” is a formulaic opening for an envoy to a work. Plus it’s English, not the Latin libello, and the work itself is in English. It’s not even a translation from Latin. (Chaucer based his version on Boccaccio’s Italian Il Filostrato.) The only connection to the Latin word and to libel is that “litel book” could be translated as libello if one were to translate the work into Latin.

Now, if Chaucer had used libello instead of litel book, or if the envoy were macaronic, in both Latin and English, then there might be a double meaning.

[ Edited: 27 September 2013 03:21 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 27 September 2013 07:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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No, it was a long shot at best. It would even be contrary to Chaucer’s tone and purpose at the end of the work. It’s an inviting thought, especially since I’ve now refreshed my memory about the lit crit angle on the poem’s defamation of Criseyde. Ah well…

Anyway, envoy (poetic) and macaronic were terms new to me and it was instructive to look them up.

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Posted: 28 September 2013 12:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The word “envoy” awoke my interest. It reminded me of my maternal grandfather, an affluent man who wrote doggerel verse (some of it quite delightfully bad), and published it at (faute de mieux) his own expense. Several of his verses ended with an envoi. A hundred years ago, to call such a thing an “envoy” would probably have been deprecated, as an unwarranted neologism (I’m sure there are those who would deprecate it even today). Looking up “envoi/envoy” in Wikipedia, I went on to read about Swinburne, and (following the admirable example of Iron Pyrite) learned a new word: algolagnia.
Hurrah for wordorigins.org! ---- Instructive? That word doesn’t even begin to describe it!

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Posted: 28 September 2013 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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A hundred years ago, to call such a thing an “envoy” would probably have been deprecated, as an unwarranted neologism

Hardly.  OED:

envoy, n.
[...]
1.
a. The action of sending forth a poem; hence, the concluding part of a poetical or prose composition; the author’s parting words; a dedication, postscript. Now chiefly the short stanza which concludes a poem written in certain archaic metrical forms. arch.
c1398 Chaucer (title) , Th’ enuoye of Fortune.
1485 Caxton tr. Charles the Grete (1881) 250 Thenuoye of thauctour.
1509 A. Barclay Brant’s Shyp of Folys (Pynson) f. ccxxvii, Thenuoy.
1576 Turberv. (title) , Tragical Tales..with the Argument and L’Envoye to ech Tale.
1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues, Envoy,..th’ Enuoy, or conclusion of a Ballet, or Sonnet.
a1637 B. Jonson Under-woods xlii. 75 in Wks. (1640) III, Another answers, ‘Lasse those Silkes are none In smiling L’envoye.
1823 Sismondi’s Lit. Eur. (1846) I. vi. 173 The songs are usually in seven stanzas, followed by an envoy, which he calls a tornada.
1823 New Monthly Mag. 7 194 The last chapter..the moral and envoy of the whole.
1880 Hueffer Macmillan’s Mag. No. 253. 49 There are..six lines to a stanza and six stanzas to a poem, not counting the tornada or envoi of three lines.

(The Hueffer of the last citation is presumably Francis Hueffer, father of Ford Madox Ford.)

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Posted: 28 September 2013 12:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Thank you, languagehat—I stand corrected!  My grandfather may have written l’envoi just to show off. He needed to distance himself from his working-class antecedents, only two generations away. I think they were a bit of an embarrassment to him in Edwardian England.

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Posted: 29 September 2013 05:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I suspect he included it just because he was familiar with it from the poems he was imitating; in that day, it wasn’t a particularly pretentious usage (no more than poetry in general, anyway).

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