Wood on Words: Judging the many meanings of the word ‘peer’
The recent announcement that five Sept. 11 terrorist attack suspects would be moved from the Guantánamo detention center to be tried in New York City has caused quite a stir.
Apparently, anything the Obama administration says or does will stir things up, but this isn’t the place for that issue.
One of the concerns of critics of the move was addressed in a political cartoon that ran in this newspaper earlier in the week. Under the headline “By a jury of his peers?” was a jury box containing 10 caricatures of the chief defendant. In other words, such a person has no peers.
This carries a venerable legal idea to an absurd extreme, as if only female jurors could properly judge a female suspect, or thieves a suspected thief, and so on.
The phrase “judgment of his peers” can be found in the Magna Carta of 13th-century England, but there is no similar appearance in the U.S. Constitution. The notion, from the tradition of English law, has been interpreted by U.S. courts to be part of the American system of justice as well.
But “jury of peers” doesn’t mean that the jurors will be the same as a defendant. In fact, the concept is that the makeup of a jury will reflect that of the larger community. So it’s actually about variety rather than sameness, and we’re all equal despite our differences.
The noun “peer” is one of many in English that originally sprang from the Latin “par,” meaning “an equal.” “Peer” is defined as “a person or thing of the same rank, value, quality, ability, etc.; equal, specifically an equal before the law.”
In Britain, where this all began, a peer also can be a member of the nobility. The phrase “peer of the realm” refers to any of those who are “entitled to a seat in the House of Lords.”
The word “peerage” applies to that group. The rest of us theoretically fit into some other “peer group” — “all those people of about the same age, status, etc., in a society, regarded as forming a sociological group with a homogeneous system of values.”
The key part of that definition is “regarded as”; that doesn’t mean it’s so.
We love to try to put people into categories, but most of us are an imperfect fit. We are, after all, individuals.
This is not quite the same as “peerless,” however, which means “without equal; unrivaled.”
That’s for a person or thing that clearly stands out from the rest of a group.
Speaking of something different, the verb “peer” has two principal meanings:
“To look closely and searchingly, or squint, as in trying to see more clearly.”
“To come out or show slightly; come partly into sight.”
In the first one, the goal is to see; in the second, it’s to be seen.
The origin of this “peer” is uncertain. Webster’s says it may be the result of “aphesis,” a fancy linguistic term for “loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word.”
In the case of “peer,” the altered word would be “appear” — which certainly fits its second definition.
Next week I’ll look at “jury” and the rest of the “justice league.”