Today, the word libel refers to a false, defamatory, written statement and the verb to libel means to write such a statement. (Libel should not be confused with slander, which is an oral statement and generally considered a less serious matter because it is ephemeral and less likely to cause lasting damage.) The word, like many legal terms, comes to English from French. Ultimately the word comes from the Latin libellus, or “little book.”
The Latin word referred to any short treatise or brief bit of writing. But the earliest uses of libel in English are in a legal sense, which makes sense as many legal terms come to us from Latin via Norman French—the Normans having installed their own courts and legal system after the conquest. English use of libel meaning a formal statement or declaration dates to at least 1297, and by 1340 the word was being used to refer to the document that outlined the complaint in a civil suit.
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.”
Beginning in the sixteenth century, the word moved out of legal circles and began to be used for leaflets or pamphlets, especially those that made charges against or defamed a person’s character. Initially these were referred to as famous libels, from the Law Latin libellus famosus, “famous” because they were public documents. Soon the famous was dropped, and they became simply libels.
The 1588 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, which Shakespeare used as the basis for many of his history plays, says this about the excommunication of King John:
The bishops, which durst not openlie publish the excommunication of the king, but secretlie cast libels about the high waies, which gaue notice thereof.
The verb also appears in the sixteenth century, with the sense of publishing defamatory statements.
In the next century, libel took on the meaning that we use today, any writing that damages a person’s reputation through false statements, be they defamatory, seditious, or just plain indecent. But eventually, the word settled on the meaning of a false and defamatory statement, which is pretty much the only meaning in common use today, among lawyers as well as among the general public.
Parallel to this legal sense was a literary or poetic use where libel was used in its original Latin sense of “little book.” This usage seems to have faded away by the eighteenth century, displaced by the legal usage.
“libel, n.,” “libel, v.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“libelle (n.), Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton