20 Criminal Terms You Should Know

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DISCLAIMER: This is a random list of frequently heard terms that relate to criminal activities. It is NOT comprehensive. It is NOT to be construed as legal advice. If you need reliable legal information, talk to a lawyer who practices law where you reside.

Broadly speaking, U.S. law recognizes two types of crime: misdemeanor and felony.

Not every state agrees as to the classification of misdemeanors and felonies. For example, in some states domestic abuse is a misdemeanor; in others it’s a felony. Nonetheless federal guidelines determine the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor in terms of punishment: a crime punished by imprisonment of a year or less is a “misdemeanor.”

1. arson: From Latin ardere, “to burn” (pp. arsus). Intentionally damaging a building with fire or explosives.

2. burglary: The crime of breaking into a house with intent to commit theft. Until some time ago this charge occurred only if the felon broke into the house at night.

3. crime: from Latin crimen, “charge, indictment, offense.” An act punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare. Legally, a crime consists of two parts: actus rea, the criminal action, and mens rea, the criminal intention.

4. domestic abuse: any act or threatened act against a person with whom an intimate relationship exists or existed, for example, spouse, boy/girlfriend, child.

5. embezzlement: from Anglo-Fr. embesiler “to steal, cause to disappear.” A person who appropriates to personal use money entrusted for another purpose commits embezzlement.

6. felony: as a term in common law from Old French felonie, “wickedness, evil, treachery, perfidy, crime, cruelty, sin.” Noun: felon; adjective: felonious.

7. forgery: The creation of a false written document or alteration of a genuine one, with the intent to defraud.

8. human trafficking: the crime of displacing people with a view to exploiting them.

9. kidnapping: a compound of kid (slang for “child” and nap, a variant of nab, “to snatch away.” The word first referred to the practice of stealing children or others in order to provide servants and workers for the American colonies. In current usage, the crime of kidnapping is the abduction of a person of any age with the intention of holding the person for ransom or for some other purpose.

10. larceny: from Latin latrocinium, “robbery.” The felonious taking and carrying away of the personal goods of another with intent to convert them to the taker’s use. The difference between grand larceny and petit larceny is one of the value (as defined by statute) of the stolen property.

11. manslaughter: from Old English mann, “person”+slaeht, “act of killing.” Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malicious intent. Voluntary manslaughter is committed in the heat of passion, or while committing another felony. Involuntary manslaughter is the result of accident, such as vehicular manslaughter.

12. moral turpitude: turpitude is from a Latin word meaning “vile, ugly, base, shameful.” Defining the term in a legal sense is a slippery undertaking. Crimes of moral turpitude include: murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, domestic violence, prostitution, embezzlement, arson, bribery, blackmal, perjury, and theft.

13. murder: from Old English morðor. “secret killing of a person.” Murder is intentionally causing the death of another, either through premediation focused on a particular individual, or by extreme indifference to human life. First degree murder is defined by federal and state laws, which vary.

14. prostitution: from Latin prostituere, “to expose to prostitutuion, to expose publicly.” Commission of a sex act for money or some other thing of value.

15. receiving: accepting property for use, resale, or disposal that is thought or known by the receiver to have been stolen.

16. robbery: from Old French rober, from a Germanic source meaning “to rob, spoil, plunder.” Robbery is theft committed openly and with force.

17. stalking: With the sense “pursue stealthily, the verb stalk comes from Old English –stealcian, as in bestealcian “to steal along.” An early meaning of stalker was “one who prowls for the purposes of theft.” In today’s usage, stalking is a crime that involves the intentional and repeated following and harrassing of another person to the extent that the targeted person fears bodily harm.

18. theft: depriving another of property. Theft implies subterfuge, while robbery is the open taking of property. Burglary is committed when the thief breaks into a building:

19. treason: AngloNorman treson from a Latin word meaning “a handing over, surrender,” and influenced by Old French trair “betray.” Treason is the crime of siding with the enemy, either to fight against one’s own country, or to offer “aid and comfort” to the enemy.

20. trespass: from Old French trespasser, “to pass beyond or across.” Trespass is entering another’s property without permission. If it is with an illegal intent, it’s a crime. Illegal dumping is a form of trespass.

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9 thoughts on “20 Criminal Terms You Should Know”

  1. Thanks for this post! As a law enforcement officer I’ve always been bothered by writers (and people in general) who misuse these terms. The mistakes I most commonly read about are with the words robbery and burglary. Both are related to the word theft.

    A burglary is usually considered to be when someone enters a building unlawfully and commits a theft therein, whether the building is a business or residence. Think of it as a combination of trespassing and theft.

    A robbery is usually considered to be a theft committed with the use of force, or threat of force. Think of it as a combination of assault and theft.

    Thanks again. I love the blog.

  2. 14. prostitution: from Latin prostituere, “to expose to prostitutuion, to expose publicly.” Commission of a sex act for money or some other thing of value.

    Unless it’s done in front of a video camera, in which case it’s “acting in an adult movie”, which is not a “crime” to be paid for…

    (Of course, it’s not a crime either way in civilized countries)

  3. Great article, Maeve! As I was reading your article, I couldn’t help but look at a copy of the 10 Commandments on my wall and notice just how much meaning those precepts hold.

    Definitely bookmark worthy!!! 🙂

  4. Two other terms that I have always struggled with are slander and defamation, what is the essential difference between these two terms?

  5. Would you also address assault and battery? I live in a state that has statutes that define assault, but not battery. Yet people talk about them together.


  6. Yes, I really do agree that on writing crime dramas and mysteries you do so need the right words and phrases, to stand out in the world of writers. Otherwise you’ll look like a fool and fall flat on your nose.

    Whereas other kinds of writing you could slide a bit, although that is not adviced or recommended.

    Show your credinetials as a writer by being the true pro that you know you are.

    All those other elements will just fall into place.

  7. Cat, a simple explanation of the difference between “assault” and “battery” is that if I take a punch at your chin and MISS, it’s “assault;’ but if that punch CONNECTS then it’s “battery.” Then you have AGGREVATED battery, which is battery of an especially violent or eggregious sort (as in being pummeled with a pipe or wrench), “assault and battery” which is not commonly used anymore because the terms have diverged legally into two different crimes. There’s also “indecent assault” which is a physical assault of a sexually-based nature (like if I grabbed your crotch in a crowd), but this can also relate to sex crimes that fall just short of the legal definition of rape. It’s one of those terms that change depending on the laws in a particular jurisdiction.

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