Denise encountered the phrase “exculpatory evidence” in a Law and Order episode and wondered about its origin. At its core is the Latin word culpa, translated as liability, fault, or blame.
The ex- prefix signifies out of or away from, thus rendering exculpatory as a vindication, a relief from blame, proof of innocence. The culpa base shows up in legal terminology, but originally it was theological.
St. Augustine was famous for his exclamation, O felix culpa! It meant “Oh, happy fault,” and it was a reference to original sin, which, damning in itself, still led to the coming of a redeemer. That phrase has worked its way into the Easter Liturgy of the Catholic Church. Another prayer, the Confiteor, a public declaration of sin, contains the line mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
Many of the words carved out of culpa are obsolete, but they remain interesting.
- culpable: deserving of punishment or condemnation
- culpation: a blaming or finding fault with
- culpatory: tending to express blame
- culpose: characterized by criminal negligence
- culprit: the accused
- disculpation: clearing from blame
- exculpation: the clearing from blame
- inculpable: free from blame
- inculpatory: tending to incriminate
Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition
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