Meanings: “Libel” and “Liable”

August 20, 2012

“Much of the staff of the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, including the top editors, resigned Wednesday, claiming interference, even censorship, by the nonstudent managers hired to oversee it.” That’s the opening paragraph of a New York Times story last Thursday.

Relations between colleges and universities on the one hand and student newspapers on the other have been laced with troubles over the years.  It is hard to maintain a proper balance (and tension) between good journalism on the part of the paper and protection of the institution of higher education that is the newspaper’s publisher.  In the UGA case, the publisher is a non-profit organization independent of the university.  None of the stories I’ve read give me details about the governance or finances of that non-profit organization.

Nevertheless, the independence of the paper’s reporters and editors is clearly at the center of this controversy.  Students released a draft memo of “expectations” set forth by the not-for-profit’s staff who oversee the work of the student editors and reporters.  Read it for yourself: the memo does suggest pressure to do “feel-good” stories and avoid anything critical or negative.

Included in the memo is this list of things “we will not tolerate”: “Liable?”  Presumably the memo’s author meant “libel.”  Authors of guidelines for style or content should make doubly sure they don’t include howlers in their dictates.  But I did fall to wondering whether “libel” and “liable” are at all related.  Turns out they are not.  Etymology.com tells us that “libel” derives from an Old French word for “little book,” and originally referred to any legal charge, not just to an unfounded accusation of harm to a person’s reputation.

“Liable” is even more interesting, at least to me.  Of course it is an adjective; the noun being “liability.”  Here’s what etymology.com says:

liable (adj.) Look up liable at Dictionary.com
mid-15c., “bound or obliged by law,” probably from Anglo-Fr. *liable, from O.Fr. lier “to bind, tie up, fasten, tether; bind by obligation,” from L. ligare “to bind, to tie” (see ligament). With -able. General sense of “exposed to” (something undesirable) is from 1590s. Incorrect use for “likely” is attested by 1886.

So it derives from another Old French word meaning “to bind or to tie.”  There’s a dead metaphor here: when we take certain actions, we tie ourselves to the outcome, and thus bear some responsibility for that outcome.  Cool.

But not related to libel, which I’m sure the person responsible for drafting the memo is likely to remember for the foreseeable future.

Language Log’s coverage of the story is here, with the focus is on “libel” and “liable” having become “eggcorns.”

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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