This is a common word with a strange genesis, arising out of an old legal abbreviation, compounded by popular etymology.
When England was conquered by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, French became the language of the law. It remained in use among lawyers even after the language of the courts changed to English in the fourteenth century, latterly in a stylised and degenerate form called law French. Fragments of law French survive even to this day in parliamentary proceedings. Culprit is another survivor.
The records are sparse, but the usual explanation goes like this: if a prisoner in a medieval court pleaded not guilty to the charge, the prosecutor would respond with the words, Culpable: prest d’averrer nostre bille, which may loosely be translated as “We believe him to be guilty and I am ready to prove the charge”. This was recorded in the court rolls as cul prest or cul prist.
The two key words are culpable and prest. The former remains in English in the sense “deserving of blame”, ultimately from Latin culpa, blame or fault. Prest is Anglo-Norman, meaning “ready”, which survived in English until the eighteenth century, but which has become prêt in modern French (as in prêt à manger, ready to eat, or prêt à porter, ready to wear).
The abbreviation cul prest became modified down the years and was somehow misunderstood very late on in the history of law French to be the way that the accused was to be addressed. It turns up first in the record of the trial in 1678 of the Earl of Pembroke for murder; he was asked: “Culprit, how will you be tried?”
Culprit became part of the language in the sense of the accused person. During the following century people came to believe that it meant a guilty person, perhaps in part because of a confusion with culpa.
Q From David Shapiro: Where does pony up come from?
A This is a classic American expression, but one now widely known in other parts of the English-speaking world. To pony up means to pay what you owe or settle your debt. It usually refers to a smallish sum of money:
The promotion offers Virginians 16 and older the chance to fish without a license for three days in the hopes some of those folks will have so much fun they’ll decide to pony up a few bucks for the privilege of fishing for the next 12 months.
The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Virginia), 2 Jun. 2013.
It dates from the early nineteenth century. This is the earliest example so far known:
The afternoon, before the evening, the favoured gentlemen are walking rapidly into the merchant-tailors shops, and very slowly out, unless they ponied up the Spanish.
The Rural Magazine and Farmer’s Monthly Museum, May 1819.
(Spanish here is slang for money, a term known a little earlier in Britain — Francis Grose recorded it in the 1788 edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. It’s short for Spanish money, from an association of Spain with rich treasure fleets, doubloons and pieces of eight.)
It seems very likely that pony similarly derives from English slang. It appears in several works at about the same time, including the 1796 edition of Grose’s book. It also turns up in another famous work, which will expand even further your knowledge of long-obsolete slang terms for money:
It’s everything now o’days to be able to flash the screens — sport the rhino — show the needful — post the pony — nap the rent — stump the pewter.
Tom and Jerry, by W T Moncrieff, 1821.
The presumption is that it comes from the equine pony because it was a small horse, as relatively small as the sums of money which users were concerned with. Among the moneyed classes a pony at this time meant 25 guineas (later 25 pounds), a very large amount at the time by most people’s standards, but presumably not thought excessive by individuals who paid their bills in guineas. Horses for courses, you might say.
• “The quote below,” emailed Hal Norvell, “is from a local newspaper here in central Maine. The source is the Associated Press. ‘A court in Cameroon found two men guilty under the country’s law banning gay sex on Tuesday, a lawyer said ....’”
• Nancy Miller found this in the Premier Traveler magazine for June & July, reviewing ANA business class: “The meal was expertly finished off with a decedent Pierre Hermé Paris dessert: vanilla and dulce de leche ice cream with raspberry sauce.”
• Speaking of decedents, the New York Times obituary of 26 June for the photographer Bert Stern contained this sentence, Kate Schubart reports: “His death was confirmed by Shannah Laumeister, a longtime friend, who said she and Mr. Stern had been secretly married since 2009. No cause was given.”
• It-could-have-been-better-punctuated department: in a story about acute oak decline, a bacterial disease which is afflicting British trees, the Guardian on 16 July referred to “Brian Muelaner, an ancient oak adviser at the National Trust.”
• Detlef Pelz read a Reuters report dated 1 August on the website of The Age in Australia: “Mr Chong’s lawyers have said that he was arrested at the home of friend during a raid by a drug enforcement task force investigating an ecstasy trafficking ring that included DEA agents, sheriff’s deputies and San Diego police officers.”
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2013. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this newsletter and would like to help defray its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
Joe Soap; Fair to middling; Nimrod; Isabelline; No soap; Umquhile; Steal one’s thunder; Katy bar the door; Simoleon; Dope; Lord love a duck; Yarely; Upset the apple cart; Snooter; Fard; By hook or by crook; Polish off; Loggerhead; Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.