English Law and Hebrew:

Having coauthored an article on Yiddish and the law, I was fascinated to hear that the name of the infamous Court of Star Chamber supposedly stemmed from Hebrew. No less a luminary than Blackstone so reports (thanks to The Party of the First Part for the pointer) (paragraph breaks added):

This is said (Lamb. Arch. 154.) to haven been so called, either from the Saxon word steoran, to steer or govern; or from its punishing the crimen stellionatus, or cosenage; or because the room wherein it sat, the old council chamber of the palace of Westminster, (Lamb. 148.) was full of windows; or (to which Sir Edward Coke, 4 Inst. 66. accedes) because haply the roof thereof was at the first garnished with gilded stars. As all these are merely conjectures, (for no stars are said to have remained in the roof so late as the reign of queen Elizabeth) I shall venture to propose another conjectured etymology, as plausible perhaps as any of them.

It is well known that, before the banishment of the Jews under Edward I, their contracts and obligations were denominated in our ancient records starra or starrs, from a corruption of the Hebrew word, shetàr, a covenant. (Tovey's Angl. Judaic. 32. Selden. tit. of hon. ii. 34. Uxor Ebraic. i. 14.) These starrs, by an ordinance of Richard the first, preserved by Hoveden, were commanded to be enrolled and deposited in chests under three keys in certain places; one, and the most considerable, of which was in the king's exchequer at Westminster: and no starr was allowed to be valid, unless it were found in some of the said repositories. (Madox hist. exch. c. vii. § 4. 5. 6.)

The room at the exchequer, where the chests containing these starrs were kept, was probably called the starr-chamber; and, when the Jews were expelled from the kingdom, was applied to the use of the king's council, when sitting in their judicial capacity. To confirm this; the first time the star-chamber is mentioned in any record, (Rot. claus. 41 Edw. III. m. 13.) it is said to have been situated near the receipt of the exchequer: that the king's council, his chancellor, treasurer, justices, and other sages, were assembled en la chaumbre des esteilles pres la resceipt al Westminster. For in process of time, when the meaning of the Jewish starrs was forgotten, the word star-chamber was naturally rendered in law-french, la chaumbre des esteilles, and in law-latin, camera stellata; which continued to be the style in latin till the dissolution of that court.

Alas, the Oxford English Dictionary nixes this, reporting that it comes from "Anglo-L. camera stellata (14th c.), AF. chambre d'estoiles, des esteilles, esteillee (14th c.)," and saying:

The conjecture of Sir T. Smith (Commonw. Eng. III. iv, a 1577) that the chamber was so called 'because at the first all the roofe thereof was decked with images of starres gilted', appears to have no confirmatory evidence, but is highly probable. The notion, made popular by Blackstone, that the chamber had been the depository of 'starrs' or Jewish bonds (see STARR) has no claim to consideration.


Milhouse (www):
I don't see what basis the OED has for saying that Smith's guess is "highly probable" despite having "no confirmatory evidence", while Blackstone's, which at least does rest on a known fact (that Jewish contracts "were denominated in our ancient records starra or starrs"), "has no claim to consideration". Unless the OED says more than you've quoted, this seems to be nothing more than the arbitrary dictum of an anonymous editor.
8.21.2007 9:15pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
I guess that where it comes to etymology, I'm inclined to trust the judgment of the OED, which I assumed is based on more information than what they put into the published entry. Let me know if you have reason to doubt that.
8.21.2007 10:10pm
ThePartyoftheFirstPart (mail) (www):
I agree with Milhouse - but then, I would, I'm the author of The Party of the First Part. The "starra" etymology is supported by Peter Tiersma, professor at Loyola Law School and author of Legal Language (Chicago 1999). He writes about the "starra" etymology on his website: (citing M.T. Chanchy, From Memory to Written Record, at 201-202; and volume 15 of the Selden Society.) Also, an internet search suggests that the starra definition is also supported in Leigh's New Picture of London (1819). Of course that is not dispositive, but neither is the OED. "Camera Stellata" has the ring of authority because of the Latin, but it is historically quite commmon for English law to Latinize words from other languages (eg, "murder," a latinization of Old English morder, and quo warranto, a made-up Latin phrase from the Anglo-French warrant). I could go on...
8.21.2007 11:36pm
Gandalin (mail):
Forgive me for pointing this out here, but in your article on Yiddish in American legal opinions, I believe you mistakenly criticize the Federal decision defining bagels:

"The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot. As recently as 1970, a federal court not only felt the need to define "bagels"; it misdefined them, calling them "hard rolls shaped like doughnuts." All right-thinking people know good bagels are rather soft. (Day-old bagels are rather hard, but right-thinking people do not eat day-olds, even when they are only 10 cents each.) We've come a long way since then."

You were probably only joking, and I am probably being too pedantic about this, but a "hard roll" is not a "hard" roll. A "hard roll" is a name for a roll made of yeast-risen dough with a hard crust. It is also called a "Vienna roll" or a "kaiser roll." A bagel is very much a yeast-risen roll with a hard crust that is in fact shaped like a doughnut. The court's definition of a bagel was in fact a very good one for those Americans who use the name "hard roll" for a "kaiser roll" or a "Vienna roll."
8.22.2007 2:48pm