But I firmly believe these particular bureaucrats have only one group they plan to monitor and persecute — I mean prosecute — on this issue.

What is it about pursuing legal action that makes people think of harassing someone? Although we’re not sure, it turns out that people have been confusing persecute and prosecute from the start.

Prosecute entered English first: probably before 1425 from prosecuten (to follow up or pursue) in Polychronicon by Ranulf Higdon. Higdongot his term from the Latin prōsecūtus, whose root means to pursue. By 1579, prosecute had taken on the sense of pursuing legal action before a court:

His compassion and experience would allow him to prosecute cases that will make us all safer.

Persecute, on the other hand, entered English in 1450 meaning to pursue for the purpose of harming. Before 1450, it had often been confused with prosecuten from (you guessed it) Higdon’s Polychronicon. Persecute, however, comes from the Middle French persécuter, to pursue, torment, or begin legal action. Today, persecute can mean harming, harassing, tormenting, or oppressing:

“It was actively involved in every operation to persecute, expel and exterminate the Jews from the very beginning,” he said.

Given that persecute and prosecute once both meant shades of to pursue and to begin legal action, perhaps those who confuse the two should be neither prosecuted or persecuted.