We cannot discuss law without discussing measures taken to deal with people who break it – if there were no such measures, then the law itself would be meaningless.
Regardless of whether we are talking about the Old Testament and the law of retaliation (“eye for an eye”), cash settlements, imprisonment, or other innovative sentencing, it is time to take a look at the measures intended to be punitive.
Along with the more familiar words, like punish or punishment, our word, meaning ‘inflicting or intended to involve punishment,’ comes to us from the 16th century French term punitif, which itself derives from the Latin verb/infinitive punire, meaning ‘to punish or correct.’
In the English language, the term can first be found in John Ireland’s The Measure of Wisdom, originally written around 1513, stating that: “Because he disobeyed to God be the divine justice vindictive and punitive he tainted the domination that he had upon his own body.”
The phrase punitive damages developed circa 1850 to describe damages exceeding simple compensation and awarded to punish the defendant, first recorded in print in The American Law Register from 1858, Kendall vs. Stone: “Mr Hill..presents..the reasons in support of the proposition that this doctrine of punitive damages stands upon no ground of principle.”
Considering that we typically associate the word punitive with legal proceedings, it is not uncommon for people to think of punitive strictly in legal terms, such as jail time for assault or robbery, paying for a car’s repair in a civil lawsuit, etc.
However, as a 1907 article in the Galveston (Texas) Daily News points out by stating that: “The charge that, in criticising the various new schemes of punitive taxation, the press has offered no remedy”, anything can be made to be punitive, depend on an individual’s perspective.
A prime example of this are the additional punitive taxes on tobacco products: since government and health sources view tobacco products as bad, logic dictates that a larger tax will (monetarily) penalise people into not using tobacco. To an extent, this has proven to be effective, but it remains to be seen how much of a punitive actions is too much.
Though punitive measures are necessary for the public good, they can sometimes be taken too far: one notable example from antiquity can be found during the reign of the Roman emperor Caracalla, who looted and plundered Alexandria as well as murdered the prominent citizens of the city as a punitive measure due to an unflattering satirical play performed in the city.