Some English speakers consider the adjectives legal and legitimate to be synonymous. In this, their intuition is supported by insistence on some English usage websites that the two are necessarily equivalent. A number of controversial recent political events, by contrast, have been defended precisely in terms of semantic shading between the two words. Some events have been justified as ‘legitimate but not legal’: the Palestinian intifada, by its supporters; the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo, as assessed by Kofi Annan; the Iraq war, as described retrospectively by General Wesley Clark; or - more currently - targeted killing by drones. Other events and practices are condemned for being ‘legal but not legitimate’, in a microcosm form of legitimation crisis: acts by the official Syrian government against its own population; tax avoidance schemes contrived by multinational companies. When legal and legitimate are paired by and and or, their juxtaposition suggests contrast of meaning rather than equivalence. This effect extends even into overtly legal settings. When the phrase enforceable legitimate expectation is used in formulating a claim in judicial review, for example, a sense of legal entitlement is conveyed by context and by the word “enforceable”. Yet legitimate itself in this context does not mean mandated by law; rather it functions as a term of art within the field of law, to be established (or not) in wider terms such as fairness.
Some of the modern meanings conveyed by legitimate are carried over into English from the word’s Latin antecedent. English adjective legitimate, along with related verb legitimate (also modern legitimize, and derived legitimation and delegitimation) comes into the language in late 15c from medieval Latin lēgitimātus, the past participle of lēgitimāre ‘to declare to be lawful’ and ‘to cause to be regarded as lawful offspring’ (from Classical Latin lēgitimus lawful and < lēg-, lēx, law). With other words derived from Latin lex, legitimate forms part of a semantic cluster around the Norse word law (‘laid down’) and Anglo-Saxon riht, both of which continue into present use but with nuances between ‘law’, ‘leg-’ and ‘rights’ traditions. From earliest use, however, legitimate gave rise to particular complexity, in that the status it confers must have been endorsed by some authority. Yet while according to the OED legitimate displaced an older adjective which did not require such agency (legitime), legitimate itself shows little trace of its participial, passive sense of a status actively declared rather than simply inherent.
Lack of clarity regarding exactly who or what validates something that is ‘legitimate’ continues to contribute to the word’s uncertainty, not only in general discussion but in more technical fields. In social theory, for example (from Weber through Habermas into current sociology), the agency at work in legitimation and loss of legitimacy of individuals, organisations, new nations and post-revolutionary societies is conceived as a matter of collective construction of social reality, expressed as orientation towards norms, values, and beliefs that individuals presume are widely shared whether or not they personally share them.
Complexity and resulting tension have arisen partly because, over three centuries, legitimate introduced into English a number of figurative extensions to the underpinning “offspring schema”. Some of those extensions existed in the Latin precursor but each became significant in the word’s later development in English. Five broad and interwoven strands can be traced.
- OED sense 1a, from late 15c, is historically the most salient sense: that of lawful progeny or ‘having the status of one lawfully begotten; entitled to full filial rights; born in wedlock’. This meaning was enforced by changing legal measures with life-altering consequences in different periods, and remains alive and controversial in many parts of the English-using world depending on prevailing family structures and cultural conventions.
- From 16c, however, a (now obsolete) extension from approved parentage widened legitimate in such a way that it could refer to objects, products and processes other than children, including words, books as productions of an author, even medicines (as in the OED example: ‘By the Taste..we..distinguish the true legitimate [Medicins] from the adulterate’). In this sense, legitimate means ‘genuine, real or authentic’ in contrast with ‘spurious’ or ‘counterfeit’ (as well as, more weakly, ‘regular’ or ‘standard’, as contrasted with ‘idiosyncratic’ or ‘wayward’).
- Also building on the schema of proper descent, a narrower political sense emerged in early 19c in the constitutional sphere: ‘based on hereditary right’, within a wider system of lineal succession that combines authenticity by origin with stratification of entitlement and authority. By the time this sense emerges, however, in a political culture coloured both by industrialisation and by the French and American Revolutions, there is already sometimes scepticism in its use, as in this OED quotation from Disraeli (1860): ‘It is not in irony, but in sober earnest, that we express our belief, that any throne is, in practice, called legitimate which has not had the consent of the nation to its..existence.’
- It is a confusing feature of the history of legitimate that this constitutional sense, now familiar across the globe in combinations such as ‘legitimate government’ while symbolically still connected with biological descent in its echoes of ‘legitimate succession’, should appear long after another, wider sense to which this sense appears closely tied: that of ‘permitted or lawful’ (the sense which makes possible the popular modern equation of legal with legitimate). In this meaning (OED 2.a), ‘conformable to law or rule; sanctioned or authorized by law or right’, something is legitimate if it is legally permissible (‘accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements’). This sense, which relies both in law and more generally on foundations in morality and reasonable behaviour, is clear in Macauley: ‘What would, under ordinary circumstances, be justly condemned as persecution, may fall within the bounds of legitimate self-defence.’
- In yet another direction, legitimate is attested from late 18c with the meaning ‘Sanctioned by the laws of reasoning; logically admissible or inferable.’ J.S. Mill refers significantly to ‘legitimate logical processes’. This is the sense appealed to in talk of legitimate steps in a calculation as opposed to ‘fallacious’ ones, and legitimate inferences in conversation in contrast with strained or unreasonable interpretations. Despite the association of legitimate with degree of recognition afforded to offspring, as well as with constitution and tradition, at this point legitimacy is absorbed into Enlightenment vocabulary as an ordering of things by reason. Through this striking semantic extension an order guaranteed by physical descent morphs into one validated by continuity of mental operations.
These five still evolving strands in the meaning of legitimacy can appear distinct from one another in given situations. They are linked, however, by important complications to which the word gives rise. One major complication stems from persistence of the word’s participial force, with its implication that no clear basis for legitimacy exists unless specified. Acknowledging something as legitimate on alternative implicit grounds of origin, constitutional standing, law-abiding character, consensual norm or correct reasoning, accordingly reflects tacit intellectual and political choices. Without specification, on the other hand, legitimacy fades into rhetorical appeal to a hall of mirrors of perceptions attributed by others that conjure up some form of quasi-legal endorsement. A second major complication affects not only legitimate but a whole cluster of judgement words in English including fair, valid and reasonable. Each can be used normatively rather than descriptively to justify or query social obligations and desirable courses of action. But each use requires either an assumption that the assessment put forward expresses subjective viewpoint (even self-interest), or alternatively that the judgement rests on consensual perceptions deemed ‘objective’. In the face of such divergent alternatives, legitimacy judgements are very much open to question. As regards an often claimed need for political or legal allowance to be made for "legitimate advertising practices” or “legitimate professional procedures” in banking and finance, for example, it is uncertain what standard the legitimacy of such practices derives from. It is also unclear whose point of view such legitimacy represents: that of advertisers and bankers themselves; that of a regulatory framework believed to command public trust; that of accepted opinion, however gathered; or that aligned with some wider but unspecified – and likely to be contested – concept of the public interest.