Examining the etymology of a word can reveal a lot about the relationships it has with other ideas. If you’re in a relationship, a significant milestone is meeting the parents of your romantic partner. As you get to know your partner’s parents you learn more about your partner. Likewise, a word is born from a specific cultural and historical context. How a word has been shaped and changed over time can also give clues about the values and ideas informing the context we currently inhabit.
The word equity (n.), like most of our legal words, comes to us from Latin through Old French. The Latin term aequitas (n. f. nom. sing.) entered Old French and became equite which over the march of history eventually became the English equity.1 The Latin root of the word aequitas is aequus (adj.) which means “level, even, equal, like, just, kind, favorable, impartial, fair, patient, contented.2” Aequus is also where we get the English word equal (adj.)3.
There are three things to note here. First, the root Latin word aequus and the subsequent English word equal are adjectives. They describe something. They can also be adverbs describing an action. For example: “Judge Posner ruled equitably.” Only later did these terms become nouns perhaps after being associated with the procedural institutions that now bear their name. Even when they are nouns, they still serve as modifiers of another term. For example, “She wants equity.” Inevitably, what our hypothetical person wants is for something to be equitable. It is a feature of English grammar to turn descriptive words into nouns. That in turn can distort our understanding of the terms themselves by making them objects abstracted from the realities in which they adhere.
Second, even when we use the term as an adjective or adverb, the word is rooted in physical metaphor. The most tangible is the metaphor of even ground. This is conceptually related to the idea of similarity. The ground is level when it is uniform or similar. By abstraction, we think of a game as equitable when it is on a “level playing field.” When there is no slant towards one side. As a bizarre coincidence, the term inequitable has its origin in the Latin word inequabilis which is rooted in the similar-sounding term equus which means “horse.” For the ground to be inequitable also meant it was impassable for a horse4.
Third, equity is related, both conceptually and grammatically, to equality. Likewise, they are conceptually related and similar in grammatical function to the term justice. However, they are also distinct. As we explore the history of equity more fully we will see how to distinguish these concepts and terms more precisely. Initially, it is worth noting justice is more extensive and contains equity, while equality overlaps the two while not being contained by either5.
Next time we will look at the history of equity in the legal system.
2. Oxford, Latin Desk Dictionary, 7 (2005)
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5. E1 = Equity, J = Justice, and E2 = Equality. (E1 ⊂ J) | (E2 ∪ E1) | (E2 ∪ J) where E1 ≠ J ∧ ∀x, x ∈ E1 ⇒ x ∈ J.
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