I am thinking of the word "culpatory" as defining a system of justice which is more concerned with discovering culpability than explanation (most of them do).

The definition of culpatory per the OED is as follows:

Tending to or expressing blame.

1786 H. Walpole Vertue's Anecd. Painting (ed. 4) V. 247 If adjectives in osus, as famosus, &c. were not most commonly used by Latian authors in a culpatory sense.

1801 W. Taylor in Monthly Mag. 12 588 Eloquent culpatory diatribes.

I was watching a documentary of an actual lawsuit where a very poor boy of 14, who had been introduced to cocaine by his homeless mother at the age of 10, and who had only ever known brutalised living on the streets had committed a serious crime. The court seemed to me excessively obsessed with finding culpability rather than seeking understanding of the circumstances.

The only word I could think of to describe such a system is culpatory, but the OED indicates that its use is rare. Is there a better known word or expression that says much the same thing?


3 Answers 3


The act of attributing something to a cause, a sort of blame, is called ascription. See ascriptive defined by Merriam Webster

relating to, marked by, or involving ascription.

ascription: the act of referring to a supposed cause, source, or author.

Also see if retributive justice or corrective justice is what you are looking for.

MERRIAM WEBSTER defines them as:

justice concerned with punishing or rewarding an individual.

  • I like the ascriptive idea, and prefer the word to culpatory - but from looking at both the OED and Merriam Webster, it would appear to be equally rare. The OED has only one example of its use, from the 17th century. Retributive and corrective justice have a slightly different sense, more relevant to the punishment than the findings. What I am looking for is a word meaning a "preoccupation with discovering guilt".
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 17:48

Criminal justice systems can be considered as adversarial or inquisitorial.

In an adversarial system the prosecution attempt to prove the accused person is guilty and, usually, try to portray him in the worst possible light. The police investigation may aim at producing evidence to support the prosecution. The accused can defend himself, with or without assistance. The judge, and jury (if any), are neutral and have to decide between the prosecution and defence. Their decision is based solely on what the prosecution and defence tell them, plus the judge's technical knowledge of the law. Typically the jury decide on the fact of guilt or innocence, and the judge on the degree of culpability, if guilty.

The very poor 14-year-old boy, mentioned by the OP, was facing an adversarial system.

This is in contrast to an investigative, or inquisitorial, system where a judge, or investigating magistrate, is in charge of the investigation. He or she directs the police as to what aspects of the case to investigate and then aims to produce as complete a picture as possible. Sometimes this judge may then prevent his findings to another court.

The 14-year-old boy in question might have benefited from a more inquisitorial, less adversarial, approach to his case. There are, or course, arguments both ways.

  • You may be right that the adversarial system, which is used in most English-speaking jurisdictions, lends itself to what it is that I am trying to pin down with a word. But it is not adversariality in itself that is on my mind. My word would refer to the headlong rush to ascribe blame, often in the most simplistic way. The word I am coming to like is that supplied by @vickyace - ascriptive.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 23:23

censorious adj

harshly critical; fault-finding

captious adj

apt to make trivial criticisms; fault-finding; carping

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