Sunday, December 05, 2010


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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