Q: I was in England as part of my sabbatical research and visited an old town hall with a courtroom dating from Elizabethan times. A guide explained that the wooden panels surrounding the jury box were removable and that’s where the idea of empaneling a jury came from. It sounds bogus to me. What do you think?
A: The verb “empanel” comes from the use of the noun “panel” in Middle English for a piece of parchment on which the names of jurors were written.
(The usual spelling of the verb has been “impanel” in American English and “empanel” in British English, but a search with Google’s Ngram viewer indicates that “empanel” is now equally popular in the US.)
In fact, the verb—in both spellings—showed up in Middle English before the noun was used for the typically wainscotted wooden panels of a jury box.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the verb is made up of the prefix “em-” (“to put (something) into or upon”) and a “now rare” sense of the noun “panel” (“the slip or roll of parchment on which the names of jurors are listed”).
English adopted the verb in the early 15th century from the Anglo-Norman empaneler, which dates back to the late 14th century with the same sense. The post-classical Latin impanellare also had that meaning.
The verb was spelled “enpanel” when it first appeared in Middle English. The earliest OED citation is from a February 1426 entry in the Rolls of Parliament, the official records of the English Parliament:
“All such persones as buth enpanelled to passe in enquestes in þe kyngus court” (“All such persons as be empaneled to serve in inquests in the king’s court”).
The dictionary’s first example with the “impanel” spelling is from a November 1439 entry in the Rolls of Parliament:
“Tho men the which hath estat to thaire oeps … be retourned and impanelled” (“Those men which have property to their use … be returned and impaneled”).
And the first Oxford citation for the “empanel” spelling is from a 1467 list of ordinances governing guilds in the City of Worcester:
“The seid seriaunts [servants] empanelle no man to be in gret inquest” (English Gilds: The Original Ordinances of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds, 1892, by Joshua Toulmin Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith).
As for the noun “panel,” it took on its legal sense in the late 14th century. In this OED citation from Piers Plowman (circa 1378), an allegorical poem by William Langland, it refers to a parchment list of jurors:
“Ne put hem in panel to don hem pliȝte here treuthe” (“Not put them in panel [on parchment] to make them plight the truth”).
It wasn’t until the late 15th century that “panel” took on its sense of “a distinct, typically rectangular section or compartment of a wainscot, door, shutter, etc.,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest recorded example is a 1498 entry in the Ledger of Andrew Halyburton, 1492-1503, edited by the Scottish historian Cosmo Innes in 1867. Halyburton was a Scottish trade official stationed in Flanders:
“4 dossin of pannellis of rassit vark cost 3 grotis the stek” (“4 dozen panels of raised work [in relief] cost 3 groats [silver coins] apiece”).