The Etymology of “Misdemeanor”

The crime of the century is not going to be a misdemeanor, but the history of the word itself may be more interesting than some of the crimes it describes.  Looked at the right way, it could be construed to mean “misconducting animals by threatening them,” which might be poetic or might not, I haven’t decided.

Wiktionary gives the etymology of misdemeanor by breaking the word down into two pieces: “mis” (against, opposing) and “demeanor.”  Demeanor comes from the latin de + mener + or.  Mener was latin for “to conduct” or “to lead.”  Mener may also have come from minari, which meant, “to threaten.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary has “demeanor” a little differently.  They say that Middle English had a now-obsolete word demean, which meant “handle, manage, conduct” and by the 14th Century came to mean “behave in a certain way.”  They trace this word by to the latin de + mener, just like Wiktionary does, and like Wiktionary, they trace that word to the latin “minare” meaning “to threaten,” in the way that a person might lead a herd of animals by threatening them.

According to Merriam Webster, the first known use of the word “misdemeanor” was in the 15th Century.  How we got from there, to the word’s modern meaning, which a lesser criminal act in some common law systems, is anyone’s guess.  Misdemeanors are often contrasted with their more serious cousins, felonies, a word that has an etymology that is much more surprising and raunchy than you might guess.

A misdemeanor in its original sense.

Annotations

Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot got her nickname from rapper Magoo, according to Jet magazine.  “Magoo gave is to me.  He said it would be cute.  It doesn’t mean anything.  He just thought it would b e cute for me.”  Her name Missy is actually another nickname for her birth name, Melissa.

The word appears occasionally in popular music.  The band Sweet has a song called “Miss Demeanor” on their album Desolation Boulevard.  Foster Sylvers also has a song called Misdemeanor.  British band UFO has an album called Misdemeanor.  And finally, according to Wikipedia, there is a female stoner rock band from Sweden called Misdemeanor.

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