I have been watching Shetland lately, a police procedural set, obviously, on the Shetland Islands. One of the words that keeps popping up is fiscal. The detectives talk of referring matters to the fiscal or someone has to fly to Aberdeen to meet with the fiscal office. At first I thought it was just a reference to monetary matters—after all investigations cost money and a high-profile murder case is going to need a lot of that—but it soon became clear that the context the word was used had to do with the prosecution of crimes and matters relating to what in the United States would be handled by a coroner’s office. I had stumbled on a common word that means something quite different in the jargon of the Scottish legal system; fiscal is shorthand for procurator-fiscal, the title given to a prosecutor in Scotland.
Fiscal comes to us from Romance languages and ultimately from Latin. Fiscus is the Latin word for the state treasury, and fiscalis is an adjective relating to matters concerning the public purse. Fiscus is literally a basket, originally a woven container for storing money and then extended into the figurative. Fiscal is an early-modern borrowing into English, appearing by the late sixteenth century. The monetary sense is the one that is most prevalent in English today.
Procurator is an older borrowing. It comes to English from Latin via Anglo-Norman. In Latin a procurator is a manager or overseer of an estate, and during the Roman empire the word was used to mean a tax-collector. That’s the sense that made it into English in the early thirteenth century, someone who acts as agent, especially in financial matters, for another. The term was particularly used in reference to religious communities and universities.
But in Scotland procurator came to be used in a slightly different sense. As early as the opening years of the fifteenth century, a procurator was an official responsible for the collection of fines, fees, and other monies for the Scottish courts. And by the mid sixteenth century the term had been expanded to procurator-fiscal. Also, over time the duties of those with that title grew, until they encompassed prosecutions of crimes, a scope of responsibility quite removed from the original, monetary sense of the words.
And by the late seventeenth century, procurator-fiscal was being clipped to just fiscal, which brings me full circle back to the TV series Shetland.
Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879, s. v. fiscalis, fiscus, procurator.
Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. fiscal, adj. and n.
Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2007, s. v. procurator, n.1; procurator-fiscal, n.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton