• plaintiff •
Pronunciation: playn-tif • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A complainant, a person who brings a suit to a court of law.
Notes: Today's Good Word is a lexical orphan of sorts: it has no direct relatives, words that are derived from it. However, it comes from the same French word as plaintive "grieving, mournful", and we see its root in complaint. The Word History will show how these words fit together.
In Play: This word can only be narrowly used, in the legal sense: "The plaintiff in this case, Your Honor, claims that she hired the defendant to wash her toy poodle, and that the defendant, having washed the dog, then placed the pup in her microwave oven to dry it." The defendant then sued the plaintiff for destruction of her microwave when the dog exploded.
Word History: Plaintiff goes back to the era following the Norman Conquest when English courts were conducted in French. The English legal dialect is still peppered with French expressions as a result of that period: voir dire "examination of witnesses", oyez "hear ye" are just two examples. Middle English borrowed the word from the Old French adjective plaintif "aggrieved, lamenting". The plaintiff is the aggrieved party in a legal proceeding. French plaintif came from the noun plainte "complaint, grievance", which goes back to Latin planctus "lament", the past participle of plangere "to beat one's breast, to lament". This comes from a time when women beat their breasts when they mourned. In fact, breast-beating remains in English as a phrase that means overreacting to a bad situation. (The contributor of today's Good Word, Joanne Verhulst in the Netherlands, mentioned that the equivalent of plaintiff in Dutch is aanklager "accuser".)