A dash of libel, a smidge of slander

As a newspaperman, one of my favorite lines in the Spider-Man movies came in the first movie in an exchange between Peter Parker and the editor of the Daily Bugle:

Peter Parker: Spider-Man wasn't trying to attack the city, he was trying to save it. That's slander. J. Jonah Jameson: It is not. I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel.

As a journalism student, you learn that rule early when they are drilling the ethics into you. As a copy editor, you learn to keep your eye out for the use of both words to make sure they are used correctly. But I was wondering last night where the distinction comes from and decided to check out etymologies in the OED.

A libel used to be a " A little book; a short treatise or writing." This meaning is obsolete but comes from the etymology: Libel is an Old French word that comes from the Latin libellus, which is the diminutive (meaning smaller version) of liber, which means book. Other obsolete meanings from the OED include:

  • A written paper.
  • A formal document, a written declaration or statement.
  • A leaflet, bill, or pamphlet posted up or publicly circulated; spec. one assailing or defaming the character of some person (in early use more fully, famous libel = Law Latin libellus famosus).

As a noun, it has three definitions in the OED:

  • In Civil Law: The writing or document of the plaintiff containing his allegations and instituting a suit. In Ecclesiastical Law: The first plea, or the plaintiff's written declaration or charges, in a cause. In Scottish Law: The form of complaint or ground of the charge on which either a civil or criminal prosecution takes place.
  • Any published statement damaging to the reputation of a person. In wider sense, any writing of a treasonable, seditious, or immoral kind. Also, the act or crime of publishing such a statement or writing.
  • In popular use: Any false and defamatory statement in conversation or otherwise. Transferred sense: applied to a portrait that does the sitter injustice, or to a thing or circumstance that tends to bring undeserved ill repute on a person, a country, etc.

The second of those definitions is the one that J. Jonah Jameson, and all newspaper journalists, chiefly concern themselves with, since our stock in trade is published statements and defaming someone with them can get us sued.

All this shows libel is firmly rooted in the written word.

On to slander.

Slander comes from the Anglo-French esclaundre, from the Old French esclandre, an alteration of escandle, an adaptation of the Latin scandalum, which means a "cause of offense or stumbling."

OED's first definition of slander is: "The utterance or dissemination of false statements or reports concerning a person, or malicious misrepresentation of his actions, in order to defame or injure him; calumny, defamation." The second is very close to that, describing the thing itself rather than the act: "A false or malicious statement or utterance intended to injure, defame, or cast detraction on the person about whom it is made."

Some obsolete meanings of slander:

  • A source of shame or dishonour; a discreditable act; a disgrace; a wrong.
  • A person who is a discredit, disgrace, or scandal to some body or set of persons.
  • A cause of moral lapse or fall; a stumbling-block. = scandal n. 1b, offense

Slander seems less firmly rooted in the spoken word than libel is in the written. From the etymologies and definitions, it seems that all libelous statements are also slanderous, but not all slander is libel.

But I'll stick with J. Jonah Jameson.