Serve is a ditransitive verb: “I served him; I served him dinner.” Dinner is served when it is delivered; and a person is served when food is placed in front of him.

In which sense is justice served in American English? Say for example in the sentence “He was led away for justice to be served” which occurred in an American documentary recently broadcast in the UK? It appeared to mean that he would be served with justice.

Does it primarily mean that the offender receives his just deserts, or that justice is honoured by what happens to the offender?


I've tagged this because it seems that using serve with justice is more American than British, particularly when an offender is punished. Brits are more likely to have justice done (“and seen to be done”) or carried out, or even meted out. Those verbs make the usage clear: justice is delivered to the offender. If justice is served in the UK, it could easily mean that a defendant is acquitted (that is, justice is satisfied with a just result).

The CSI episode “Justice is Served” (Season 1, episode 21) played on this dual meaning.

  • justice is served when what Justice [capitalized after the style of an older English whether this means God or not] wants to happen is delivered in this world. We can use justice is served to refer to an acquittal as well in AmE. The sentence you're saying came in the documentary sounds weird to me. – virmaior Feb 13 '14 at 10:09
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    cf. purpose served. – Kris Feb 13 '14 at 10:13
  • I was going to comment that serve has a meaning that has nothing to do with delivering a meal, until I saw that bib’s answer covered that. Damon Knight wrote the definitive play on the multiple meanings. – Scott Feb 10 '17 at 5:27

In which sense is justice served in American English?

Why assume it's just one sense?

As you say, we can interpret the phrase as either meaning that justice (in the sense in which it is the maintenance of what is just and right, or the personification thereof) is the recipient of service, or is the thing that is delivered (in the sense in which it is the punishment delivered to the guilty).

It's ambigous in meaning, but those two ambiguous meanings express the same result.

I can find some that seem to clearly mean one or the other:

Chavez executed: 'Justice served for an evil man'

Was justice served in the death of two-year-old Maximus Huyskens?

The former would seem to mean the "justice dished out" sense, the latter the "service rendered to justice" sense.

And I would guess that yours leans toward the sense of "dished out" due to the sentence focusing on the prisoner, but as a set phrase it can not only mean one or the other, but can mean both simultaneously: A speaker need not avoid the ambiguity, since it is ambiguous between expressing two things, both of which they would feel were true, so they can live happily with that ambiguity.

Brits are more likely to have justice done (“and seen to be done”) or carried out, or even meted out. Those verbs make the usage clear: justice is delivered to the offender.

Actually, I'd interpret done and carried out as closer to the other sense, since justice can be done or carried out by acquitting someone wrongfully accused.

  • I am not sure that in Britain we do 'do justice' 'or have justice done', except in a metaphorical sense e.g. 'I couldn't do justice to a three course meal right now'. As mentioned in my reply I think we tend to focus on 'the interests of justice' as if 'justice' was a persona, one step removed from actions in her name. This may follow Plato, whose philosophy I believe has more influence in Britain. This may be due to the fact that 'The Republic' is addressed to aristocrats. I am not sure that Plato was a passenger on the Mayflower. – WS2 Feb 13 '14 at 11:22
  • @WS2 I can certainly find some British claims that justice was, or was not, done at google.ie/search?q=%22justice+was+done%22+site:co.uk along with quite a few from here, too. – Jon Hanna Feb 13 '14 at 11:36
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    When researching the late-eighteenth century I discovered various cases where juries acquitted people who seemed guilty of their alleged crimes. A classic example was the prosecution of the leaders of the London Corresponding Society, an early form of trade unionism. They were acquitted by the jury, though perhaps technically guilty, perhaps because the the penalties were so draconian. Ordinary people were loathe to condemn people to death or transportation for life. The jury was effectively acting as a voice of ordinary people. Some modern cases may fall into that sort of category. – WS2 Feb 13 '14 at 12:33
  • @WS2 serveral acquitals of "Ploughshare movement" activists in both Britain and Ireland would seem to be similar; while the formal defence has generally been that otherwise unlawful action is indeed allowed when it will prevent a violent crime (the principle by which we are allowed to use force to defend ourselves or another from an attack), the decision in at least some cases seems to have been one not so much of legality as juries' general attitude toward their acts. – Jon Hanna Feb 13 '14 at 12:40

I agree with Jon Hanna's postulate that the phrase may have multiple meanings that often complement each other.

However, a straightforward explanation may be found one of the meanings of serve

to give obedience and reverent honor to (God, one's lord, etc.)

This sense seems to transcend the import of a given act and suggests a more karmic alignment.

  • It is a long time since I read Plato's 'Republic', but I do know that he regarded 'justice' as a virtue. I have no idea what he would have thought of 'karmic alignment' but I feel sure he would have given it a try! – WS2 Feb 13 '14 at 13:54

Until reading this post, I had never thought of the phrase as meaning "justice was meted out" to the guilty party. It always mean "Justice was given its due" by the authorities or whomever.

I have no data but I feel confident that a poll would confirm that most Americans today hear the phrase the same way. That is not to say that we have preserved the original meaning of the phrase...there could have been a flip-flop because the verb "serve" has long had two meanings. In law, "serve" can commonly have the second meaning ("serve a warrant") whereas in modern laymen's AE, it usually has the first meaning.

  • Sorry bud. Can't agree. – Unrelated Feb 10 '17 at 3:48

Would this usage not be covered by meaning 7 of 'justice' in the OED?

  1. The quality of being just or right, as a human or divine attribute; moral uprightness; just behaviour or dealing as a concept or principle (one of the four cardinal virtues: cf. cardinal adj. 2a); the exhibition of this quality or principle in action; integrity, rectitude. commutative justice, distributive justice, social justice, etc.: see the first element.

The character, in your description, was led away in order that the ' exhibition of this quality...', might be served.

(Of course this could perhaps vary between having an arm amputated in Saudi Arabia to being put in a comfortable en suite facility, and taking some courses in social behaviour for three months, in, let's say, somewhere like the Netherlands.)

Perhaps one of the reasons it sounds slightly different in America is because in Britain we are inclined to talk about 'the interests of justice'. Would you have felt happier if the person had been led away 'for the interests of justice to be served'?

There is of course a far wider debate as to the meaning of 'justice' as Plato pointed out in The Republic. Is justice what you, I, and 63 million others in Britain say it is, or is there an overriding notion of 'justice which transcends public opinion?

  • But I'm not asking about justice. I'm asking about served. – Andrew Leach Feb 13 '14 at 12:25
  • Your final three sentences were: It appeared to mean that he would be served with justice.Does it primarily mean that the offender receives his just deserts, or that justice is honoured by what happens to the offender? – WS2 Feb 13 '14 at 12:43
  • Yes. That's my question. While it may have appeared to mean that, is that really how serve is used in this context in AmE? – Andrew Leach Feb 13 '14 at 12:43
  • But the problem is that you have coupled it with 'justice' which is a much contested word among philosophers. Besides, what I am saying is that 'justice' (per meaning 7, 'the exhibition of this quality...') can 'be served', as well as 'serve' . Though, personally, I would have said 'the interests of justice were served', as I regard 'justice' as having a separate persona which is independent of public opinion. Since it has a persona, justice is not something that I believe can be 'done' or 'meted out'. It would be like saying that e.g. 'neutrality', or 'ambivalence' could be 'done' etc. – WS2 Feb 13 '14 at 13:03
  • @WS2 lol you're not getting it – Unrelated Feb 10 '17 at 6:10

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