suborn

Suborn is a verb that is usually heard in the context of lying under oath, and indeed roughly half of the instances of the verb in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are in the phrase suborn perjury. The verb clearly means to induce someone to commit a crime, but where does it come from?

Like many English legal terms, this one comes from French, a result of the Normans taking over the English legal system after 1066. (One of my favorite podcasts is a legal one, Opening Arguments, where the interlocutors are fond of jokingly attributing legal terms to “thirteenth-century Saxony.” But while the principles of English common law do indeed have roots in pre-Conquest, Germanic notions of justice, English legal jargon is usually from French.) In particular the English suborn comes from the Anglo-Norman suburner or subhorner, the meaning of which is remarkably consistent with the present-day English verb.

From a 1358 city of London statute:

Et plus curial chose serroit et accordaunt a ley et reson que homme se acquittat par son serment et siz bones gentz de jurer ovesqe lui ou par enquest de doze hommes qe par deux, issint subornés et faucement procures et enformés
(And because it would be more seemly and more according to law and reason that man should acquit himself his oath and that of six good people swearing with him, or by an inquest of twelve men, than by the witness of two thus suborned and tortiously procured and primed)

Of course, with the word being French, we can trace suborn’s roots back to Latin, where the basic meaning of the verb subornare is to equip, to adorn, but where it was also used to refer to inducing or inciting a crime, especially perjury. For instance we have this from Cicero’s Pro Aulo Caecina 71, a speech he gave in 69 B.C.E.:

itaque in ceteris controversiis atque iudiciis cum quaeritur aliquid factum necne sit, verum an falsum proferatur, et fictus testis subornari solet et interponi falsae tabulae, non numquam honesto ac probabili nomine bono viro iudici error obici.
(Therefore in other disputes and trials, when the question at issue is, whether a thing has been done or not, whether what is alleged be true or false; and when false witnesses are sometimes suborned, and false documents foisted in; it is possible that sometimes a virtuous judge may be led into error by a seemingly honorable and probable pretense.)

The etymology of suborn is, therefore, quite ordinary and straightforward, but it is unusual in that the meaning and patterns of usage have been preserved pretty much unchanged for over two millennia.


Sources:

Anglo-Norman Dictionary, Universities of Aberyswyth and Swansea, 1977–92, s. v. suburner.

Bateson, Mary, ed. Borough Customs, vol. 1, Seldon Society 18, London, 1904, 169–70.

Corpus of Contemporary American English, Brigham Young University, 2019.

Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1879, s. v. suborno.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, June 2012, s. v. suborn, v.

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