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The meaning of a word

It’s a powerful word.

A fascinating word.

To a law geek like The Legal Genealogist, a lovely word.

And it’s a word, I suspect, most of us misuse just a wee bit on those occasions when we do use it, depending on time and place.

mayhemThe word: mayhem.

It popped up yesterday in that definitive treatise on the common law — Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book Four: Of Public Wrongs — and I wasn’t at all surprised to find it explained there that the law regarded mayhem as a criminal act.1

Well, duh…

I mean, when you think about how mayhem is defined in early American statutes — as, for example, in Indiana law, where you would commit mayhem if you were to “unlawfully disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut or bite off the nose, ear, lip or other member of any person, with intent to disfigure or disable such person”2 — how could it be anything other than a crime?

But Blackstone went on, and — of course — we’re all going to read right along with him3 — to find that the definition we’re used to from those early American statutes isn’t really what mayhem was, originally.

That slitting the nose, bitting off the nose, biting off the ear bit?

Not part of the original concept of mayhem at all.

See, mayhem wasn’t outlawed because the police were out to protect individuals from the terrible injuries that might be caused to them. It was outlawed to protect the Crown from the loss of the military or physical service of the person so injured. It was:

an offence tending to deprive (the king) of the aid and assistance of his subjects. For mayhem is properly defined to be, as we may remember, the violently depriving another of the use of such of his members, as may render him the less able in fighting, either to defend himself, or to annoy his adversary. And therefore the cutting off, or disabling, or weakening a man’s hand or finger, or striking out his eye or foretooth, or depriving him of those parts, the loss of which in all animals abates their courage, are held to be mayhems. But the cutting off his ear, or nose, or the like, are not held to be mayhems at common law ; because they do not weaken but only disfigure him.4

Got that? Originally it didn’t include plain old ordinary disfigurement at all.

The first change in the concept was when the law added in the notion of “beating, wounding, or robbing a man, and then cutting out his tongue or putting out his eyes to prevent him” from being able to testify against the bad guys.5

Then in the time of Henry VIII, the law was changed again to add in cutting off an ear or slitting or cutting off the nose, or in fact doing just about anything with an intent to maim or disfigure the victim.6

And oh, by the way, it’s also a civil injury. Meaning it’s the kind of thing you can sue somebody for if he does it to you.7

Lovely word, mayhem.

With little twists in the meaning depending on the time and the place.


  1. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Fourth (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1769), 205; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 25 May 2016).
  2. §13, Chapter XXVI, “An Act relative to Crime and Punishment” (10 Feb 1831) in “The Revised Statutes of the State of Indiana” (Indianapolis : Douglass & Noel, Printers, 1838), 209-210; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 Oct 2015).
  3. What? You don’t read Blackstone for fun and profit? What’s the matter with you anyway?
  4. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Fourth, at 205-206.
  5. Ibid., at 206.
  6. Ibid., at 207.
  7. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Third, 7th ed. (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1775), 121; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 25 May 2016).
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