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Etymology of Great Legal Words: Constitution

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

The United States Constitution is on the shortlist of most significant legal documents in our nation's history. And like the document itself, the term "constitution" has taken on new life over the centuries of usage.

Most people are familiar with the word's different usages, such as referring to an individual's constitution, but the term's origins are a bit more involved and date as far back as the 12th century. What might come as a surprise to some: Despite the 800 year history, the ever so popular legal term "unconstitutional" wasn't used until 1734.

Latin Roots and Centuries of Use

Constitution stems from Latin constituere, meaning "to cause to stand, set up, fix, place, establish, set in order; form something new; resolve." And while this definition seems to lend itself to how the term is now used in legal contexts, that was not the case until the 1600s. Prior to then, the word can refered to an individual, animal, or even inanimate object's "physical makeup ... with respect to health, strength, and appearance."

Surprisingly, the notion of a constitution as a "system of fundamental principles by which a community is governed" only dates back to about 1730, a mere 50-some years prior to the writing of the U.S. Constitution, which is the oldest "Constitution" still in use today.

Reclaiming Constitution for the People

Fascinatingly, the U.S. history of gaining independence actually seemed to have an influence on the modern usage of the term. As Merriam-Webster explains in its "legal definition of constitution ... A constitution was originally simply a law, ordinance, or decree usually made by a king, emperor, or other superior authority."

This does more than just seem to suggest that when the drafters titled the U.S. Constitution, the people were claiming the "superior authority" to lay down the legal framework for our nation, which vested from, perhaps the most significant legal document in our nation's history, the Declaration of Independence.

Now, not only does the United States and nearly every state have a constitution, and all but five nations in the world do.

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