A special welcome to my new Northwest Linguist readers. Good to see you here!
Recently I’ve been watching a lot of episodes of one of my favorite shows, Forensic Files. When I first discovered it a few years ago, I watched it as frequently as possible, absorbing episode after episode on CourtTV. I tried to catch Forensic Friday every week, when they would run four episodes in a row.
The show seems low budget—it consists primarily of voiceover, cheesy reenactments, and a few talking-head interviews with police, forensic scientists, prosecutors, and family members of the victims. Still, I love to learn about the science that is used to identify and analyze evidence. Things you’d never think possible have helped to solve crimes: DNA collected from traces of saliva on a rape/murder victim’s breast; tool marks made on a small piece of bomb left after it explodes; linguistic analysis of threatening letters¹; the genetic signature of firewood used to burn a body; the unique fade marks on a pair of old jeans, captured on a security camera and later matched up with a pair found at the perpetrator’s home; even a footprint left in a tomato, squashed beneath the window where the murderer climbed in! Who knows. The knowledge I glean here may also come in handy someday in my fledgling private investigation career.
CourtTV has since morphed into truTV. It now offers what seems like a menu of almost non-stop reality shows, such as Hardcore Pawn², Repo and Lizard Lick Towing. Based on what I see in their trailers, these shows consist primarily of a lot of swearing and fisticuffs between folks who are down on their luck and those with whom the down-and-outers unfortunately have to do business. Once or twice a day, though, FF is still on, and through the magic of DV-R, I can enjoy it at my leisure. I’ve returned to watching every episode aired; even those from 2007 are new again to me by now.
The other day, a law enforcement officer was discussing the course of events in a particular investigation. Initially, the husband was a suspect. (He always is.) As time went by, the police realized that the murderer had to be someone else. The officer said, “There is not one scintilla of evidence” (to indicate that Mr. So And So had anything to do with the crime).
That got me thinking. I knew a scintilla was a tiny bit, but how tiny, exactly? And where does the word come from? I discovered that scintilla is Latin for spark, but is most often used figuratively to designate a minute quantity of something.
I also learned something more interesting to me. The phrase in which I had heard this word—”scintilla of evidence”—is perhaps the most common context in which it appears. It has a long history, going back a few hundred years into English Common Law³. The “scintilla rule” or “scintilla of evidence rule” is a common law concept. It “provides that if there is any evidence at all in a case, even a mere scintilla, that tends to support a material issue, the case cannot be taken from the jury but must be left to its decision.”⁴
A few of the many related forms, gleaned from the OED:
scintill—an Anglicized and now archaic form of scintilla
scintillant or scintillating—giving off sparks or (literally or figuratively) sparkling
scintillation—emitting sparks or spark-like flashes of light (seen in chemistry and other scientific contexts)
scintillating scotoma– hallucinatory flickering patterns and gaps in the visual field as seen in migraine.
“But he exults in the anonymity his mystery glasses confer, lending him just a scintilla of cool.”⁵
¹ By Robert Leonard, a Ph.D. linguist at Hofstra University and—believe it or not—founding member of the band Sha Na Na
² Not to be mistaken with Pawn Stars, a History Channel show that explores the history of unique items brought into a Las Vegas pawn shop. The owners are highly knowledgeable; other experts from nearby universities and museums contribute their expertise as well.
³ Body of law based on custom and general principles and that, embodied in case law, serves as precedent or is applied to situations not covered by statute. Under the common-law system, when a court decides and reports its decision concerning a particular case, the case becomes part of the body of law and can be used in later cases involving similar matters. This use of precedents is known as stare decisis. Common law has been administered in the courts of England since the Middle Ages; it is also found in the U.S. and in most of the British Commonwealth. It is distinguished from civil law. (From Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, quoted at answers.com)
⁴ West’s Encyclopedia of American Law
⁵ “Glamorous Generic, As a Shield From the Glare,” New York Times, October 26, 2003.