How to understand old writing.
January 2, 2009 1:34 PM   Subscribe

What did "forensic" mean in the late 1600s?

More specifically, John Locke famously describes "person" as a "forensick term." In Book 2, Chapter 27, Section 9 of the Essay concerning Human Understanding (Nidditch edition, though that shouldn't matter too much).

Merriam-Webster on-line has this entry (which seems to indicate that the meaning back then is pretty much the same as it is now):
Latin forensis public, forensic, from forum forum --- Date: 1659
1 : belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of judicature or to public discussion and debate

Which leads me to conclude that it was a term used to describe concepts, etc. that would be suitable for use in courts but not necessarily applicable outside of the legal system. Which is to say that his description of pershonhood in that section is meant to be more or less just a legal term that is good enough for litigation but without serious metaphysical weight.

In any case that is all a digression. I'd really just like to know whther "forensic/forensick" had a different meaning in the late 1600s than it has now, and how I might resolve similar ambiguities in the future.
posted by oddman to Writing & Language (6 answers total)
Best answer: expanding on your previous:

"The word "forensic" has an unusual history. It comes from the Latin word "forensis" pertaining to a forum. In ancient Rome the forum was a market place where people gathered, not just to buy things, but also to conduct all kinds of business, including that of public affairs. The meaning of "forensic" later came to be restricted to refer to the courts of law. The word entered English usage in 1659." *

I can't imagine the original meaning would differ greatly from the latin, otherwise why anglicize such a specific term?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:51 PM on January 2, 2009

Best answer: Yep. The Oxford English Dictionary has: Pertaining to, connected with, or used in courts of law; suitable or analogous to pleadings in court. as a sole meaning. Here's the examples (note that Locke's use is one of them):

1659 Hammond On Ps. cvi. 31 It signifies much more than justification, as in the forinseck sense that is opposite to condemning. 1690 Locke Hum. Und. ii. xxvi. (1695) 189 Person+is a Forensick Term. 1768 Blackstone Comm. III. 84 That the students might not be distracted from their studies by legal process from distant courts, and other forensic avocations. a1779 Warburton Div. Legat. iii. iv. Wks. 1788 II. 89 Lactantius, from a forensic Lawyer now become an advocate for Christianity. 1837 Carlyle Fr. Rev. I. iv. iv. (1872) 122 Such admired forensic eloquence. 1845 Stephen Comm. Laws Eng. (1874) I. 8 A sort of mixed science known by the name of Forensic Medicine or Medical Jurisprudence. 1865 Dickens Mut. Fr. ii. viii, In an imposing and forensic manner.
posted by LucretiusJones at 1:54 PM on January 2, 2009

You can also consider, of course, the fact that person might have had a different tone to it then; but you were probably already thinking of that.
posted by koeselitz at 5:29 PM on January 2, 2009

Best answer: ...and how I might resolve similar ambiguities in the future.

Getting access to the Oxford English Dictionary is really the best way I can recommend.

Buying a copy is expensive (other than the concise version, which will be much less informative in most cases). An annual subscription to the OED Online is $295 but you may be able to get access via another a library or school -- I am able to get free access using my public library information.
posted by camcgee at 8:46 PM on January 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, my library has the OED. So, now I know where to go. (Which really seems like something someone about to get his PhD should have known already.)

koselitz, you're right to point out that "person" is being used in a odd way. In fact there has been some interesting work lately on the nature of personhood in Locke. One account, that I've heard of second hand, makes it out to be not much more than a mental construct (one of his mixed-modes).
posted by oddman at 6:27 AM on January 3, 2009

I have a "microprint" OED that I got for free when I signed up for some book club. It's the full thing--not "consise" or "shorter," but the complete text in tiny, tiny print, with a magnifying glass included. New, they seem to be going for $300 or so, but I've seen them at used book stores for $50, I seem to remember. Might be worthwhile to keep an eye out for one.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:43 PM on January 3, 2009

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