Unpled: (legal) not used as an argument; undefended by evidence

Brann Decision header

This Court has been unable to find any case in which a plaintiff has sought such a drastic remedy in the contest of an election, in terms of the sheer volume of votes asked to be invalidated. One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption, such that this Court would have no option but to regrettably grant the proposed injunctive relief despite the impact it would have on such a large group of citizens.
That has not happened. Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.

Judge Matthew Brann, Memorandum Opinion, 21 November 2020

Unpled? Unpled? UNPLED? Now there‘s a word that would have had my old primary-school teacher, Miss Macpherson (of blessed memory), clutching her (understated, heirloom) pearls in horror. The verb “to plead” is a weak verb, she would have assured us, and so forms the past participle pleaded. To inflict pled upon it (she would have continued) is an illiterate barbarism, to be avoided by all right-thinking people. And I’m pretty sure she’d have flinched at the prospect of adding an un- prefix even to pleaded. (And don’t even get her started on “to regrettably grant”.)

And yet. The fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage tells us that pled “occurs in America, Scotland, and some dialects in the UK beside pleaded.”

And so it seems to be. But pled is nevertheless comparatively rare in Google’s British English corpus:

And really not that much more common in American English:

Those who seek to defend pled (and reader, they do exist) argue by analogy with bleed/bled, feed/fed and lead/led, while ignoring heed/heeded, need/needed and knead/kneaded. There is, in fact, no logical argument either way on this one—it’s all just a matter of common and accepted usage.

Both plead and its noun, plea, originated as legal terms in the thirteenth century—a plea was an action brought in court, and to plead was to bring such an action. The meanings then mutated to refer to specific formal statements or arguments made on behalf of the defendant, and then sneaked into general use, referring to arguments made in one’s own defence.

When charged with a crime, one may enter a plea of not guilty, which will involve a set of detailed legal arguments designed to prove your innocence. Alternatively, one may enter a special plea, which does not deny the charges brought, but produces some new information that prevents the defendant being tried for the alleged crime—having been a minor at the time of the offence, for instance. But in general use, accusing someone of special pleading usually means that you think they’re using specious arguments to get themselves off the hook. And, despite longstanding common usage, you can’t sensibly “plead guilty” to an offence, because once you’ve declared yourself guilty, no-one is required to offer legal arguments about whether or not you committed the crime. As the Oxford English Dictionary has it:

Guilty is technically not a plea, but a confession. Blackstone Comm[entaries on the Laws of England] IV. 324, 332, 399, never uses plead guilty, but writes of the prisoner confessing the fact.

With all that in place, we can see the derivation of the legal term unpleaded/unpled. Unpled is absent from Google’s British English corpus, but has been doing fairly well in American English during the last fifty years.

So Judge Brann hasn’t struck off into entirely unrecorded grammar with his deployment of unpled.

Plea comes to us from Anglo-Norman plai,* “law-suit”, which in turn descends from Latin placitum, meaning something that pleases or is agreed upon, related to the verb placere, “to please”. The first-person singular future active indicative of placere is placebo, “I shall be pleasing”, and from that we derive our word placebo, for a preparation devoid of pharmacological ingredients, which nevertheless has a physiological action mediated by the patient’s expectations.

Placit is an old word for a decision or judgement, but most English words derived from placere have the sense of something pleasing. So we have please, pleasant and pleasure; placid, placate and implacable. The last of these used to be the opposite of the now disused adjective placable “capable of being appeased”. If you are complacent, you are showing pleasure, though not necessarily justified pleasure. Whereas the fine old word beneplacit, “good pleasure”, indicated a pleasure that was just and appropriate.

And that’s it for the ramifications of unpled. I hope you’ve found my dissertation placent (“pleasing”).

* I know what you’re thinking. Anglo-Norman plai, “law-suit”, must have something to do with plaintiff, right? But no—plaint and plaintiff and complain all derive from Latin plangere, “to beat one’s breast in lamentation”.

2 thoughts on “Unpled”

  1. Very interesting. Unrelated but in Abernyte Primary School if the children jumped in the past, they “jamped” over xyz. I have been telling them no such word exists. Hope I am right.

    1. “Jamp” is commonly heard in Dundee–a strong past tense alternative to “jumped”. (You actually have a Dundonian colleague who’s been known to use it, in moments of heightened excitement.) My Concise Scots Dictionary records it in Angus and Fife (which makes sense) and also Shetland. But apparently it turns up everywhere from Inverness to Kircudbright. The strong-weak mixture “jampt” is also noted in the on-line Dictionary of the Scots Language, but I don’t think I’ve heard it locally.

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