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Etymology of Great Legal Words: Appeal

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

For the most part, everyone, including non-lawyers, know what an appeal is, and what it means to appeal. The term isn't exclusively a legal one, yet has been used in the legal context for centuries now.

The term, or better yet, the appellate process, as we know it today, traces as far back as the 11th century in Japan and 14th century in England. The roots of the term itself are old English, old French, and Latin. Curiously, it is believed that the term originates from an ancient Roman nautical metaphor that meant "driving a ship toward a particular landing." If you've ever worked on an appeal, you can probably agree that the Roman metaphor seems appropriate.

What Appeal?

In Latin, the term "appellare" means "to accost, address, appeal to, summon, name." The Latin is formed from the roots ad-, meaning "to," and pellere, meaning "to beat, drive, push against." But the legal term as we know it today may be more aptly found to have derived from old French. In old French, the word "apel," from the 1300s, meaning "to call upon, accuse," later took on the meaning "call to an authority" around the 1600s.

And while we all know that the word has more than one meaning today, in both the verb and noun tenses, these non-legal meanings didn't seem to become common until almost the 20th century. Furthermore, in the legal sense, an appeal used to not just refer to requesting review from a higher court, but also meant "a formal charge or accusation," or "to charge with a crime before a tribunal."

Aren't Appeals Appealing?

We can know that our current sense of the term comes from the old French thanks to drilling down on some of the related terms.

For example, the term "appellant," which is first seen around 1610, comes from French. And perhaps more curiously, the term "appellee" dates to 1530, and also derives from the French. The fact that "appellee" predates "appellant" may likely be a result of an "appeal" having meant "a formal charge or accusation" and the "appellee" term was needed to identify whom the charge was brought against, rather than by (as the term "appellant" signifies).

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