A-M u s i n g s

Musings are thoughts, the thoughtful kind.
For the purpose of these articles, a-musings
are thoughts that might amuse, entertain
and even enlighten.

In Her Majesty’s Court

One day, there I was, sitting in the ridiculous excuse for a waiting room at the high courts of justice in Saint Lucia, and, with nothing better to do, I started to read the names of all the judges and whatnots that adorned the wooden – or so I believe – panels that adorned – the word is used loosely – the pretty filthy walls of the chamber. Toilet facilities were severely limited – as least when I was there – for the people the courts were supposed to serve, so distractions of the type I am about to relate are essential for the comfort and well-being of one’s bladder and urinary tract.

For the enquiring mind, there is a host of activities that could occupy one’s thoughts for an hour or two – or even eight, for this court system takes the discomfort of its clients seriously – during the wait that results from everyone having to appear at 9 am even though the most inefficient of St Lucian ‘arithmophobics’ could work out that 50 people cannot be attended to at the same time, so somebody has to be last. For my own part, I was given the honor of wasting a whole day in this particular form of purgatory on more than one occasion, so I devised a system of observing my fellow creatures and even a few lawyers.

First of all you read the names – and there’s quite an assortment – but most of them, not surprisingly, sound “Terribly British” – those chappies were, after all, the persons of power and wealth, the ‘nobs’ of the day, way back then. I doubt any of my ancestors would have been acceptable in such circles for the ‘nobs’ were most certainly the worst sort of ‘snobs’.

I hadn’t thought of these two words in apposition before, so I ruminated on them for a while. I think I recall that the word ‘snob’ might be related to an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate, meaning ‘without nobility’ in the sense of being ‘of a humble social background’. However, this does not sound quite right, unless, of course snobs were always of the lower classes.

The abbreviation was supposedly used on lists of names of Oxford or Cambridge students to sort the wheat from the chaff. It has also been suggested that it was used on lists of ships’ passengers to make sure that only the best people dined at the captain’s table; it was used on lists of guests at banquets and fine gatherings to indicate that no title was required when they were announced.

Actually, I do believe word snob was first used in the late 18th century as a term for a shoemaker or his apprentice. Cambridge students later adopted the term, not to refer to students that lacked a title or were of humble origins, but to identify anyone that was not a student.

By the early 19th century snob was used to mean a person with no ‘breeding’, including honest labourers who knew their place, and the vulgar social climbers, who copied the manners of the upper classes. Over time the word snob came to describe someone with an exaggerated respect for those in high social position or wealth, who look down on people regarded as socially inferior.

Then, of course, there is a little legal mumbo jumbo – what would our courts do without a good helping of jiggery pokery to muddy the waters? – concerning the types of judges. There is, for example, a whole host of Puisne Judges. I asked my lawyer friend – sorry, my honorable lawyer friend – what the heck a puisne judge was. He tried to explain, and finally gave up, all the time referring to “Pwisine” judges. In the end, I had to enlighten him.

Puisne, pronounced by the way as puny, Judges are any judges of the High Court other than the heads of each division. The word puisne means junior, and is used to distinguish high court judges from senior judges sitting at the Court of Appeal. I believe, but am not 100 percent certain, that a puisne judge may also be known as associate judge.

Now here comes the interesting bit: Most of us use the word ‘puny’ to describe a person or thing of less than normal size and strength; in other words, weak, unimportant, insignificant, petty or minor. The origin of puny, or puisne, lies in the Old French puis né, which of course meant ‘born later or afterwards’ and referred, for example, to children other than the first born. At some time around the 1590s the word took on the meaning it has today: small, weak, or insignificant, which, of course has no effect on the severity with which judges rule their courts or the sentences they hand down.

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