misdemeanor / high misdemeanor

In current U.S. legal parlance, a misdemeanor is a less serious crime. It is contrasted with a felony. This sense dates to 1504 and Act 19 Hen. VII, c. 14 §8:

This Acte to take his effect and begynnyng for such reteynours and offences and other Mysdemeanours as shalbe doon...contrary to the forme of this acte.

This distinction between felonies and misdemeanors in British law was abolished in 1967, but it is retained in the U.S.

Demeanor means conduct, so a misdemeanor is literally bad conduct. It comes from the verb to demean, meaning to conduct, to transact business and to behave oneself. Both senses of demean date to the 14th century.

An ordinary misdemeanor is not to be confused with a high misdemeanor, which is legal horse of a different color. High misdemeanor is a largely archaic term except for one important context, the impeachment of a president of the United States. Article II of the U.S. Constitution states:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) states:

Misprisions, which are merely positive, are generally denominated contempts or high misdemesnors; of which the first and principal is the mal-administration of such high officers, as are in public trust and employment. This is usually punished by the method of parliamentary impeachment: wherein such penalties, short of death, are inflicted, as to the wisdom of the house of peers shall deem proper; consisting usually of banishment, imprisonment, fines, or perpetual disability.

So high misdemeanor refers to very serious misconduct, the most serious of felonies, not minor offenses.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition; Avalon Project at Yale Law School)

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