Give someone the third degree


The Third Degree (1919)

Here’s a curiosity of the language. To give someone the third degree is an American idiom.

It “means to interrogate them ruthlessly, to grill them without mercy, perhaps with threats or bodily harm. The idiom to give someone the third degree came into use around the turn of the twentieth century in the United States to describe interrogations by some police departments. The origin of the idiom is uncertain.

“Some credit Washington D.C. police chief Richard H. Sylvester, claiming that he divided police procedures into the first degree or arrest, second degree or transportation to jail, and third-degree or interrogation. A much more plausible explanation is the link with Freemasonry, in which the Third Degree level of Master Mason is achieved by undergoing a rigorous examination by the elders of the lodge.”

Likewise, when it comes to burns, the higher number, the more severe. First-degree burns (superficial burns)… cause pain and reddening of the epidermis… Second-degree burns… affect the epidermis and the dermis… They cause pain, redness, swelling, and blistering.

“Third-degree burns go through the dermis and affect deeper tissues. They result in white or blackened, charred skin that may be numb. Fourth-degree burns… can affect your muscles and bones. Nerve endings are also damaged or destroyed, so there’s no feeling in the burned area.” That was, BTW, a painful recitation.

It’s different for crimes

The third degree notwithstanding, crimes are regarded differently. I was aware of this from the time when I was arrested in May 1972 for fourth-degree criminal trespass at an antiwar demonstration, I discovered that it wasn’t even a crime – felony or misdemeanor –  but a violation, similar to a traffic citation.

The issue came up in a discussion over the third-degree murder charge, among others, George Chauvin is facing in the death of George Floyd. By the logic of the first two examples, third-degree should be the most serious. But, as someone who’s been watching legal shows since the original Perry Mason, I knew this is not the case.

From Wikipedia: “In most US jurisdictions there is a hierarchy of acts, known collectively as homicide, of which first-degree murder and felony murder are the most serious, followed by second-degree murder and, in a few states, third-degree murder, followed by voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter which are not as serious…”

So someone might be given the third degree over a first-degree murder charge, and both would be serious. But WHY is this different? I DON’T KNOW. Explain this to me if you can!

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