• libel •
lai-bêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: The publishing of a false statement or picture that degrades a person or injures their reputation, or such a false statement or picture.
Notes: Today's word started out as a noun, but it now may be used as a verb, a 'to libel someone', meaning "to falsely accuse them of something damaging their reputation". The adjective is libelous, as 'libelous language', and someone who libels someone else may be called either a libeler or a libelist; your choice.
In Play: Libel is a close semantic relative of slander. Both are legal terms, but slander refers strictly to speech, while libel casts a broader semantic net, and may refer to pictures that misrepresent someone: "Susan Liddy-Gates won her libel case when it was proven that the statements made by her client, the defendant, were true."
Word History: In the 14th century this word meant "formal written statement"; however, in 15th century civil law it came to mean "plaintiff's statement of charges". The current meaning was first attested in the 1630s. It was borrowed from Old French libelle "small book; (legal) writ" from Latin libellus "a little book, pamphlet, petition", the diminutive for liber "book". Liber also underlies librarium "chest for books", which English borrowed, via French, for its library. Liber comes from libra "inner bark of a tree", the material early Romans made scrolls from. English reflects a similar relation between book and beech; they also share the same origin. This may be the reason why, in many IE languages, the pages of a book are called "leaves". (Let's all thank Joakim Larsson for his recommendation of today's rather stodgy but nonetheless fascinating Good Word.)
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