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What Is a Culprit?

Many terms exist for individuals who are considered guilty under the dictates of the legal system. However, one such term primarily refers to an individual who is on trial for a crime rather than someone who is convicted for the crime. This term is referred to as culprit, and the word has existed since the 17th century in order to refer to individuals who are now called the accused or the defendant.

The word culprit was derived from 2 Anglo-French words, culpable and and prit or prest. Culpable is a word derived from the Latin word culpa, referring to guilt or fault, while prit or prest is an Old French word referring to ready. Thus, an individual answering to the charges made against him or her will be asked “cul. prist, how will you be tried?” Eventually, cul. prist was changed into culprit. When the use of French legal terms were discontinued in English courts, the term cul. prist was taken as one word to address the accused. The first use of the word culprit was found in the trial concerning the murder of the 7th Earl of Pembroke in 1678.

However, other words have now been substituted for culprit. Individuals who are considered guilty are usually referred to as offender, malefactor, or perpetrator. The word culprit is still used in describing the aforementioned, but can also apply to things or objects that are guilty of causing an event. For example, the culprit of an oil price hike may not necessarily be one individual but an oil company.

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