Printable Version
Pronunciation: kêl-prit Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A person guilty of wrongdoing or an erroneous misstep.

Notes: Today we have a lexical orphan without any derivational family but with a fascinating origin. It has mildly derogatory overtones that apply to anyone who does anything from making an error to a criminal act.

In Play: Culprit applies to the most minor of errors: "Who was the culprit who left the lights on in the office all night long?" It also applies to the most heinous crimes: "Hitler was the ultimate culprit behind the Holocaust."

Word History: Today's Good Word is the result of blending cul. prit, an abbreviation for Anglo-Norman 'culpable: prit d'averrer nostre bille' "guilty: (I am) ready to present our case". This is what the prosecutor replied when a defendant pleaded "not guilty" in a court of the English judicial system in the late 17th century. Culpable comes from French coupable "culprit; guilty", passed down from Latin culpabilis "guilty, worthy of blame". This adjective was made from the verb culpare "to blame", based on the noun culpa "blame, guilt, fault". Latin created its word from PIE kuelp-/kuolp- "to bend, arch", turning its sense into "guilty" via the same metaphor as crooked or British bent. Greek converted the same word into kolpos "lap; bay". Prit "ready" is a variant of prest, from Latin praesto "ready" (today French prêt) from PIE per "before, in front of" + sta- "to stand, hold firm". English stand, German stehen "to stand", Latin stabilis "stable", and Russian stojat' "to stand" all come from sta. (Now a bow to wordmaster Albert Skiles for unearthing today's much traveled Good Word and sharing it with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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