Wednesday 7 December 2011


A fellow on twitter asked me whether justice was the only thing that can be meted out. The short answer is that other things can be meted [out], and the long answer is that justice is one of the very few things that cannot properly be meted.

Tennyson's gorgeous poem Ulysses begins thusly:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Here, meting is pretty much a synonym for giving. And that could be that unless you remember the responses in the Order for Holy Communion as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

Priest. Let us geve thanckes unto our Lorde God.
Aunswere. It is mete and right so to do.
Priest. It is very mete, right, and our bounden duety that we should at al times, and in all places, geve thanckes to the, O Lord holy father, almighty everlasting God.

And here, mete is pretty much a synonym for appropriate. So who's right? I always find it hard to choose between God and Tennyson, or even, occasionally, to distinguish the two. It is therefore a great theological relief to me to be able to tell you that they are both right, for they are each giving two extremes of one general meaning. Mete means measure.

Or it did once. But then its meaning drifted to something that had been measured, or meted, until something of the right dimensions was mete. And therefore something that was appropriate was mete. That's what's going on in the Communion service. But also if you measure out to a person the amount that is due to him, then you are meting something out.

That's why you can mete out punishment. It means that you are giving a sentence that is measured and appropriate to the crime. And here's the problem with justice: justice is that which is appropriate. So if you mete out justice, you are giving the appropriate amount of appropriateness, and then you drown in a vortex of tautology.

So the full answer is that you can mete out anything you like - fines, food, sharks or champagne - but you can't mete out justice.

At least medioxumate.


  1. This is lovelier and sweeter,
    Men of Ithaca, this is meeter,
    In the hollow rosy vale to tarry.

    The modern spelling for mete adj = appropriate is meet, and has been so for the last few centuries, for example in the Bible (AV, 1611):

    "And Moses said, It is not meet so to do" (Exodus 8:26)

    The only occurrences of mete in that version occur in the verbal sense, usually mete out, meaning to measure.

  2. You do realize that the word "thusly" is a joke?

  3. any relation to 'meter'?

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