The spellchecker will out me. I was writing an e-mail about Examination Board procedures. (Exam boards are a blight on British academic life, and unheard of in the US. I've mentioned them before, here.) In doing so, I typed the word recuse, as in Anyone with a personal relationship with a student should recuse him/herself from discussions of that student. My mail program didn't like recuse. Thinking 'how am I spelling that wrong?', I went to the Oxford Dictionary of English (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary!), where I found the word, spelt as I had spelt it, but with the note: Chiefly U.S. and South African (or something like that--I'm away from that particular dictionary now). I think "Aha! So that's why my British spellchecker didn't like it."* (Although it must be said that it's a pretty pathetic BrE spellchecker, since it insists on one 'l' in travelling.) The OED only lists it as Now rare, but it's not particularly rare in American legalistic settings. The American Heritage definition of it goes:
To disqualify or seek to disqualify from participation in a decision on grounds such as prejudice or personal involvement.
Wondering how one would say this in British English, I had a look in the University's Handbook for Examiners, where they simply instruct the interested party to "leave the meeting while the student in question is being considered." Of course, one could say disqualify in this setting (albeit a little awkwardly), as in I disqualified myself from the discussion of that student. But where's the fun in that?

*Eek! Spellchecking update! Blogger's (American--sort of) spellchecker doesn't like recuse either! Weird, weird, weird. I started to think that my vocabulary is too rarefied for spellchecking. So I googled recuse. It gets over a million hits. Ten times as many hits as uxorious, but the spellchecker has no problem with uxorious (a word that's not in my active vocabulary). Weird.


  1. Technically, judges in both Britain and American recuse themselves (or, in recent years, simply recuse) voluntarily, whereas they may be disqualified on the successful motion of either party to the case.

    Originally, judges were disqualified if and only if they had a direct pecuniary interest in the case, and even this rule could be disregarded if no other judge was available. In England, that remained the rule until the 19th century, and even today there must be an objective likelihood of bias. Consequently, both recusal and disqualification remain fairly rare.

    In America, however, the disqualification rule was a creature of the legislatures, which repeatedly extended the situations in which disqualification was possible. In the end, the convention that "the parties choose the judge" became very powerful indeed, and in a large minority of U.S. jurisdictions, either party may move to disqualify the judge as a matter of right, with or without reasons given. This can be, and has been, abused in order to "go judge-shopping", of course.

    Civil-law countries have very complex recusal procedures (the terms recusal and its French equivalent récusation originate in civil-law procedure) which allow judges to be removed on numerous grounds, but not by mere request.

    Finally, spellcheckers often reject perfectly legitimate words that are likely to be errors for much commoner words. In this case, I suspect the creators of your spellchecker believe that recuse is probably a typo for refuse. Refuse is about 100 times more common than recuse, and differs by only one letter; furthermore, c and fare adjacent on the keyboard.

    Another such case is suer, which is a perfectly legitimate noun (from sue and -er), but in fact is most likely to be a typo for user.

  2. My spellchecker is fine with recuse, but that's because the spellchecker is the system-wide OS X one is tied to the system dictionary, which is the New Oxford American Dictionary. Though if I bring up word, which uses its own dictionary I do get recuse as misspelled. Must be a Microsoft thing. They never know when to recuse themselves.

  3. Forgive me, but I am equally drawn by the juridical and the linguistic aspects here. The AmE 'recusal' seems to apply not only to court officers but also to jurors, at the time of voir-dire.
    In the US, potential jurors can be 'forcibly' recused on a peremptory challenge, so it can take ages to select a jury. AFAIK, in the UK, all jurors have to do is swear to be impartial, and they're seated in a matter of minutes.
    So the question in this case seems to be: Is it better to seek an impossible perfection, as in the US, or make do with whoever shows up, and swear them to impartiality?
    On the linguistic side, it seems the US's vain attempt at perfection has resulted in the more frequent use of recusal, whether of officers or juries.
    Lest it seem I am biased in favor of UK methods, may I hasten to add that there have been times when I'd have welcomed a few American ideas in the UK...even including ambulance-chasers.

  4. Recusant
    1. One of the Roman Catholics in England who incurred legal and social penalties in the 16th century and afterward for refusing to attend services of the Church of England.
    2. A dissenter; a nonconformist.

    Latin:recusare-to refuse

  5. In everyday Bringlish, you would surely just "withdraw"? I do recommend not adopting American legalese - the buggers say "parse" when they mean "construe". And now the Serious Point: someone who's been on a hen party should be planning to require that "uxorious" be part of her active vocab.

  6. Pace Anonymous, I was going to make the observation that people generally recuse themselves, and are not recused by others, at least as far as language is concerned.

    Jurors, I thought generally dismissed (wether for cause), although I suppose a person isn't technically a juror until all the issue concerning impartiality et cetera have been talked out.

  7. Dearieme, that has occurred to me. After typing this last night, I discovered that Better Half is a few posts behind in his blog-reading, so I accused him of being insufficiently uxorious. I think the wedding's still on...

  8. I was on jury service a few years ago (in England). The potential jurors are called down to the courtroom and randomly chosen to join the jury for a case. the first one I was called for was a complex and long-winded fraud trial which was likely to last for several months, so most of the selected jurors (including me) excused themselves from the case on various grounds. Eventually the judge got fed up and refused to accept any more excuses. So doesn't 'excuse oneself' work as an alternative/equivalent to recuse? - incidentally I finished up on the jury for a private prosecution murder case and discovered that barristers are much better performers than most TV/film stars!

  9. I always start to mispronounce recuse in my mind as I read it to sound like "refuse" in the trash sense.

    Thanks for your comments on my blog.


  10. Or as I say in pitying tones when colleagues protest that the spell check has rejected what I tell them is a perfectly good word, "Your computer's just not very well-educated, I'm afraid."

  11. Hi! This is my first in this blog and I found this discussion interesting. I'm a avanced Portuguese student of English. What sounds funny to me is that recuse is very similar to a very common portuguese word recusar, which is in fact the same as deny or refuse. For example "Your request was denied!"="O seu pedido foi recusado". Well, I went and did some checking and my English-Portuguese dictionary lists recuse as a juridical term which translates to recusar. Additionally, both have the same origin: Latin, recusare.

  12. Recusar is a common word in Spanish. It is used in exactly the same meaning as in AmE, that is to say to disqualify oneself from sitting in judgement on a case because of a vested interest


Follow by email

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)