Missouri Executive Order 44, commonly known as the Mormon Extermination Order, includes this text: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” The Order was rescinded in 1976, but prior to that time it was common for Mormons to wryly observe that it was legal for Missourians to kill Mormons on the street. Was that really true? Uh, no.

That word “exterminated” has led most Mormons to understand this as a “kill” order. I agree with Alex Baugh, a leading expert on Missouri Mormon history (and all around great guy) that it was not.

I’m interested in Mormon history. I attend the conferences, I read the journals. But I’m more a consumer of Mormon history than a producer of it. Yet when someone recently raised this question on Facebook, I realized that I actually have something to add to this question, based on the fact that I am an attorney and I can read Latin.

The word “exterminate” derives from the Latin verb exterminare. That verb means “to drive out or away, to expel or banish, to remove or put away.” To one who knows Latin this meaning is obvious, because the verb is formed from the prepositional phrase ex termine “from the boundary.”

The confusion exists because that word also came into English with the meaning “to destroy utterly,” largely based on usage in the Latin Vulgate (such as Psalm 36:9 [= English 35:8]) and the way that word came into French. And since the main way we encounter the word today has to do with the chemical killing of vermin, it is natural for us to assume that is the dominant meaning of the word and apply that meaning to this passage. But I think that is clearly wrong.

There is another reason why I think the kill order reading is wrong, and that has to do with the phenomenon of “legal doublets.” It is extremely common in legal contexts to pair synonyms in two different languages, a practice that develops when legal systems are evolving among peoples who speak different languages, which ensures the concept will be communicated to both language speakers. Many of these pair terms in English (Anglo-Saxon) and Latin (or law French). Examples would be aid and abet, all and sundry, assault and battery, armed and dangerous, due and payable, fit and proper, law and order, over and above, true and correct, and will and testament. (For a long list, consult the “Legal doublet” article at Wikipedia.)

The key language here is “must be exterminated or driven from the state.” People naturally think the structure needs to be A or B, but here it seems to be A or A, which doesn’t make sense; why would the Order express it that way? On that reading it is saying “driven from the state or driven from the state.” And I sympathize with that confusion. But the fact is, the document is indeed saying the same thing twice: first with a fancy-pants Latinate term and second in more pedestrian English. So in effect, yes, it says basically “be driven from the state or be driven from the state,” but the first part is Latin and the second is English, because this expression is analogous to a legal doublet.

So I am quite confident that if someone pre-1976 shot and killed a Mormon in cold blood on the streets of say, St. Louis, and then raised this Executive Order as a defense, he would have found his way to prison, or maybe more appropriately to a mental institution.