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shameless pleading

Outlaw / Criminal

I’d prefer some cannoli.

Dear Word Detective:  While watching one of my favorite TV shows on FX the other night, “Justified,” one of the good ‘ol boy bad guys told some white collar bad guys that “you are criminals for what you have done, but you will never be an outlaw.” I got the impression that to be an outlaw was a lifestyle, and a criminal is someone who has broken the law, but may not make a habit of it. Is there a distinction between the two? — Brock Lohse.

OK, so ATW (According to Wikipedia), “Justified” centers on the law-enforcement adventures of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, exiled to Harlan County, Kentucky, after shooting a man in Miami. He shoots many more people in Kentucky, but the Wikipedia entry is pretty incoherent (they keep changing the spelling of Raylan/Raylon’s name, for instance), so it’s hard to tell whether the rats had it coming. “Justified” is now in its fourth season and a huge hit with critics, but I think it still has a ways to go to match Downton Abbey’s death toll.

“To live outside the law you must be honest,” Bob Dylan wrote in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and the mythic “outlaw” has always played a mythic role in the folk culture of the US (e.g., Jesse James, Bonnie & Clyde, Lindsay Lohan). (Incidentally, Dylan apparently borrowed that line from a 1958 movie, making him a tiny outlaw himself.) Although “outlaw” and “criminal” are often considered, and used as, synonyms, there is, as it happens, a real difference between the two terms worth exploring.

“Criminal” is both an adjective, which first appeared in the 15th century, and a noun, which didn’t show up until about 100 years later. The root of “criminal” is, of course, “crime,” which comes ultimately from the Latin “crimen,” meaning “crime, accusation, offense” and similar things. As an adjective, “criminal” applies to applies to something regarding, involving or constituting a crime; as a noun it means a person who commits crimes. The adjective can be a little tricky, and context is important. A “criminal attorney,” for instance, can be a lawyer who specializes in criminal cases or a lawyer who robs gas stations on the weekends. I once worked for a criminal lawyer who had been disbarred for an assault conviction, which I suppose made him a criminal criminal lawyer, although he seemed like a nice guy. One Christmas he gave me a nice shiny gun as a gift. I gave it right back.

While “criminal” has developed various senses over time, the core meaning of the term hasn’t varied much. “Outlaw,” however, has a more interesting history. Old English adopted “outlaw” from a Scandinavian source (something akin to Old Icelandic “utlagi”) combining roots meaning simply “outside” and “law.” Prior to the establishment of the legal system and due process in English law with the Magna Carta in 1215, to be declared an “outlaw” was a form of social exile as punishment for serious crimes. An “outlaw” was “outside the law” in the sense that the person was denied the protection of any law, and could be deprived of property and life by anyone, with no recourse to any legal rights. A sentence of “outlawry” meant banishment at best and often amounted to a de facto death sentence.

With the development of due process, habeas corpus and such good stuff beginning in the 13th century, the meaning of “outlaw” gradually shifted to its modern meaning of a person who has committed a crime (or many crimes) and is being actively sought for arrest and trial by the legal authorities. So an “outlaw” today tries mightily to avoid the legal system denied to the original “outlaws.” “Outlaw” today also carries a sense of long-term estrangement from society, a person who has decided to become a “career criminal.” Thus an accountant who fudges a few figures for profit on one occasion might well be derided as a mere “criminal” by an “outlaw” running a money-laundering empire.

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