Words: Libel

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE really ought to be another word for written defamation. We call them libels, but the word has become too specialised. It adequately defines the point at issue when prosperous lawyers spend hours arguing in court about whether a policeman saw what he thought he saw one night in a layby, as in the case of Gillian Taylforth and the Sun; it has less and less to do with the damage done to each other's reputations by ordinary citizens.

The earlier word for it in English, covering both written and spoken defamation, was slander, and it carried a powerful punch. This can't be said of the Latin-derived libel, which began life as a mere diminutive, a libellus being a little book. Then it was a statement or a notice stuck on a wall. It was also a pamphlet, or squib.

Pamphleteers have a tendency to be scurrilous, and walls invite self-expression by those with grudges, even if all they want to say is Fatty Roberts is a Fool, so it is easy to see how the word came to have the exclusive legal meaning it has now. But as I say, it is not quite the word we need, and is in danger of being laughed out of court.

Unfortunately slander won't do as a substitute, now that it has also acquired an exclusive meaning, and relates only to defamation uttered by word of mouth, which is not, I understand, a criminal offence. In the 18th century, when it had been going strong for 400 years, slander could still be used for written statements (there is a reference in the Junius Letters to 'slanderous tongues and pens'). Since 1952, however, the distinction between libel and slander - the one written, the other spoken - has become blurred again: things said on television or radio can be libellous, too. It's a bit of a mess, really.

Meanwhile, if anyone is seriously rude about me I shall accuse them of calumny. This has the advantage of being harder to say, and does not, as libel does, invite the response: 'You must be joking.'