English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Guilty as charged

Q: Do you know the history of the statement “guilty as charged”? I have not been able to find anything relevant from a Google search, so I would love to hear what you can uncover.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language, is no help here. The OED doesn’t have an entry for “guilty as charged” and the expression doesn’t appear in citations given for any other terms.

We haven’t found an entry for the phrase in legal dictionaries either, though some use it in defining such terms as “conviction,” “no contest,” and “reasonable doubt.” However, two of the ten online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the usage.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “having committed the crime one is accused of committing,” and gives this example: “The state will prove that the defendants are guilty as charged.”

Cambridge has two definitions—one uses the term in its legal sense and the other uses it more broadly, often to make light of the so-called charge:

(1) “responsible for doing something illegal that you have been accused of in court: They were guilty as charged and fairly tried, and therefore justice was served.”

(2) “used to admit that what someone has been accused of is true, often when you think this is not really bad: Guilty as charged! I am an Elvis fan!

As far as we can tell, the expression was first used in reference to moral or doctrinal accusations rather than formal legal charges decided in a court.

The earliest example we’ve seen, which uses similar though not identical wording, appeared in a defense of Quakers:

“We are not guilty of idolatry, as charged by our adversary.” (From The Invalidity of John Faldo’s Vindication of His Book, a 1673 treatise by William Penn. Faldo’s book, Quakerism No Christianity, had been published earlier that year.)

Here’s the first written use we’ve found for the exact expression, from a passage arguing that historians are tough on innocent people and easy on guilty ones:

“If these great Men were innocent and honest, they had the hardest Measures that can be received from Historians; but, if guilty as charged, their Memory cannot be too much loaden with Infamy” (The History of Scotland, 1732, by William Gordon).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the term used in reference to a court proceeding appeared in the late 18th century in a libel case involving a newspaper:

“I have no difficulty in saying, that if I had in my soul the slightest idea that they were guilty as charged in the information, of malicious and wicked designs, I should leave the talk of defending them to others” (The Case of Libel, the King v. John Lambert and Others, Printer and Proprietors of the Morning Chronicle, 1794, published by John Debrett).

Finally, our searches indicate that the figurative use of “guilty as charged” to make light of an accusation showed up in the late 19th century.

The earliest example we’ve found is from the March 12, 1898, issue of the Weekly Messenger in St. Martinville, LA. An article on page one dismisses handbills (“dodgers”) claiming that a local boycott is driving a five-and-dime (“racket store”) out of business:

“Murder! said the dodgers of a racket store lately opened in the lower part of Main street. And ‘Guilty as charged’ is the next line. In our estimation if this business is murdered by our home people it is because he is ‘guilty’ of an unpardonable mistake. … He circulated dodgers that were printed in New Iberia when there are two printing offices in St. Martinville.”

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