Friday, August 7, 2009

Etymological Reflection

In a field where the exact meaning of a word is crucial, it comes as perhaps no surprise that Roman students of law used to begin with a study of the word "law", or "jus", in Latin. While this lengthy etymology copied here is taken from a very old (the style of writing betrays its age) treatise on Canon Law, it serves as an apt reflection on the meaning and purpose of any kind of law.

Law: Jus

"[Justinian’s] Digest begins with this extract from the writings of Ulpian: “He who undertakes the study of the law should first understand the origin of the term ‘law’.”

The Latin word jus, for which we have no exact English equivalent, is derived:

(a) from justitia or justum (the state of justness). Thus Ulpian (1 D. I, 1) defined jus as ars boni et aequi, the art of all that is good and equitable; and St. Isidore (560-636), whose definition of jus Gratian adopted, says… “jus is so called because it is just”.

(b) Or it comes from the word jusum, or jubere, because jus means that which is commanded, namely, a law, an order, first called by the ancients jousa, and later jura. Thus, in the patrician state the laws voted on by the Roman people … received the name jussa. The chief, termed Rex, proposed laws to the people for their acceptance as follows: “Declare your will, give your command, Citizens,” or “Declare your will, give your assent, Citizens”, as the words originally meant. The Latin term for citizens was Quirites. An affirmative response was expressed by the letters U.R. (i.e., Uti rogas, I vote as you propose), and a negative reply by the letters A.Q.R. (i.e., Ante quo rogas, I vote as before your proposal). This was incorrectly interpreted by some to mean antiqua probo (i.e., I vote for the old law).

Several of the modern philologists go further and trace the derivation of the Latin word jus from other languages:

(c) Some maintain that it comes from the Indo-European or the Sanscrit root yu, which contains the idea of a bond, a tie, or a union, as in the Latin words conjux, conjungere, juxta, jumentum, jurare, and in Greek έυγόν, a yoke, and έεύγνυμι, to join. For jus is the bond whereby men are made subject to God, and one man is bound to another.

(d) Still others say that the word jus comes from the primitive Sanscrit or Vedic, Yos, which signifies what is good, what is holy, something pertaining to divinity. The reason is that right or law in the abstract comes from the divinity, and in ancient times it was the duty of priests in particular to pass laws, jus being closely connected with religion. Accordingly, Grotius and Vico, at once philosophers and jurists, considered the term jus as deriving from the Greek Zeus, which is the ancient form of the name Jupiter.

(e) In Greek, jus, justitia are designated by the word δίχη, and justum by the term δίχαιον. These words take their origin from the Indo-European dik which means to show, or to indicate, because jus is the index or rule of action.

(f) In modern languages, jus is designated by the terms diritto, droit, derecho, recht, right, and signifies that which follows a straight course, possibly from the Sanscrit root rgu denoting that which does not deviate from the true standard. In moral matters it signifies the rule of rectitude and probity. In this sense, then, jus is the same as “the standard of what is just and unjust”, after the analogy of the geometricians’ line or the builders’ plumb.

To sum up: Jus essentially consists in this: it is what is just or good, what is commanded, namely lex, what is holy and pertaining to God, what is straight and not devious; or finally, jus is that which indicates and constitutes a rule of conduct. Its meanings are many, the thing is one. For it portrays that the thing (jus) has its origin in God, the Eternal law, which alone is the sure and right norm of action."
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