When Robert Mueller submitted his report, it brought out SAT words in rarely seen numbers, like wildflowers in California after El Niño. Suddenly, Latinate words for “not guilty” were everywhere. The report was an “exoneration,” according to President Donald Trump. Republican allies called it “a vindication.” The Spectator doubted “Trump’s claims of exculpation”; Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani claimed the president had been “absolved.” The Portland Press Herald warned that the report doesn’t necessarily “acquit” Trump. About the only synonym that didn’t appear was assoil, and that’s because it pretty much disappeared in the 19th century. But as coverage drags on, perhaps we’ll see some news outlet declare that the president was not “assoiled of blame.”
Exoneration is perhaps the strongest of these words. It indicates a complete clearance from charges or blame and implies that a person should not have been accused in the first place. Exonerate means to remove a burden – the prefix ex- means “to remove or relieve from” and onus is “burden” in Latin.
Vindication too involves a total clearing of a person’s name, often with the additional sense that he or she was right all along. Whether or not you agree with them, headlines such as “President Trump is Vindicated. The Witch Hunt Is Over” neatly capture both these senses of the word, implying that the president has been proved innocent and that Mr. Mueller’s investigation was indeed a “witch hunt.” Etymologically, there is something violent about vindication. It comes from the Latin vindicare (“to set free” but also “to avenge”) and is related to revenge, vengeance, and vindictive.
In cases where the charges are less serious, a person may be exculpated, from ex- plus culpa (“fault”). It is more or less the opposite of mea culpa, a Latin phrase we still use today, which means “it’s my fault.” Absolve was first used in religious contexts, where it refers to forgiveness for sins a person has committed. Though it often connotes guilt and consequent pardon today, it does not always; people can be “absolved” from any suspected wrongdoing, whether they did it or not. Likewise, in a legal context an acquittal indicates that a person was not found guilty, but is not a determination that he or she is innocent. Sometimes people are acquitted because of a lack of evidence or a procedural flaw.
Why are these words so formal and Latinate? In England, Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church and the law for centuries, so many of our words are derived from it. Such words lend a dignity and gravity, though in the partisan circus around the Mueller report, they can only do so much.