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Q&A

How did 'forfeit' shift to signify ‘penalty imposed for committing such a misdeed'?

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I don't understand this semantic shift, because a misdeed differs from a penalty or "something to which the right is lost through a misdeed". Can someone please fill in the gap?

forfeit [13]

A forfeit was originally a ‘transgression’ or ‘misdemeanour’. The word comes from Old French forfet, a derivative of the verb forfaire or forsfaire ‘commit a crime’. This was a compound formed from fors- ‘beyond (what is permitted or legal)’, which is descended from Latin forīs ‘outdoor, outside’ (source of English forest and related to foreign), and faire ‘do, act’, which came from Latin facere (whence English fact, fashion, feature, etc). The etymological meaning ‘misdeed’ was originally taken over from Old French into Middle English (‘Peter was in hand nummen [taken] for forfait he had done’, Cursor mundi 1300), but by the 15th century it was being edged out by ‘penalty imposed for committing such a misdeed’.

Word Origins (2005 2e) by John Ayto, p 226 Left column.

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Here is a semantic midpoint example recorded around 1435, from Prose Brut:

Whan it shal lyke hym to desire of þe Kyng eny oþer landes or lordships...yfte as by escheet, forfait, rebellion, or suche oþer title, þat þei shal so acquyte hem unto þe parformyng of his desire þat his lordship shal be plesed.

In my highly unreliable translation:

When [John of Lancaster] asks the King for any other lands or lordships [returning] to the King through escheat, forfeiture, rebellion, or [through any] other title, [Lords of Council(?)] will pay off [an implied former written King's prior promise to John] so as to fullfil [John's next] wish to his satisfaction.

(The entire passage reads to me as a fancy way of a committee saying "No, perhaps later" to a very specific and difficult to refuse request made by the young king's regent.)

I'm pointing out the reference to "such other title". Readers are assumed to know that events like escheat (e.g., lack of heirs upon death), forfeiture, or rebellion are legal grounds for transferring "lands or lordships" (nobility titles) from a vassal to their overlord/king. Such an event then becomes the legal title for the kings's direct disposal of the land or of the nobility title.

This particular occurrence still uses "forfait" in reference to the misdeed (parallel to "escheat" and "rebellion"). But it is already understood that the misdeed automatically causes a loss. Transfer of a fief, loss of life...

The eventual semantic shift could be classified as an effect for cause metonymy.

The nascent meaning is perhaps a "penal loss" more than simply any punishment, considering the 15th century idiom "pein and forfet" (pain and forfeiture) which could perhaps be rendered as "suffered punishment and exacted penalty" in modern English.

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