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Harassment is a form of antisocial behavior that means engaging in unwanted conduct towards another persone that either affects their dignity or creates an unpleasant environment for them, making it hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive. This unwanted conduct would normally be a series of acts although a single serious act may be sufficient to persuade a court of law. The victim's perception is not in itself the decisive factor but it would be taken into account.
The word is based in English since circa 1618 as loan word from the French harassement, which was in turn already attested in 1572 meaning torment, annoyance, bother, trouble  and later as of 1609 was also referred to the condition of being exhausted, overtired. Of the French verb harasser itself we have first records in a Latin to French translation of 1527 of Thucydides’ History of the war that was between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians both in the countries of the Greeks and the Romans and the neighbouring places where the translator writes harasser allegedly meaning harceler (to exhaust the enemy by repeated raids); and in the military chant Chanson du franc archer of 1562, where the term is referred to a gaunt jument (de poil fauveau, tant maigre et harassée: of fawn horsehair, so meagre and …) where it is supposed that the verb is used meaning overtired.
A hypothesis about the origin of the verb harasser is harace/harache, which was used in the 14th century in expressions like courre a la harache (to pursue) and prendre aucun par la harache (to take somebody under constraint). The Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, a German etymological dictionary of the French language (1922-2002) compares phonetically and syntactically both harace and harache to the interjection hare and haro by alleging a pejorative and augmentative form. The latter was an exclamation indicating distress and emergency (recorded since 1180) but is also reported later in 1529 in the expression crier haro sur (to arise indignation over somebody). hare 's use is already reported in 1204 as an order to finish public activities as fairs or markets and later (1377) still as command but referred to dogs. This dictionary suggests a relation of haro/hare with the old lower franconian *hara (here) (as by bringing a dog to heel). 
While the pejorative of an exclamation and in particular of such an exclamation is theoretically possible for the first word (harace) and maybe phonetically plausible for harache, a semantic, syntactic and phonetic similarity of the verb harasser as used in the first popular attestation (the chant mentioned above) with the word haras should be kept in mind: Already in 1160 haras indicated a group of horses constrained together for the purpose of reproduction and in 1280 it also indicated the enclosure facility itself, where those horses are constrained. The origin itself of haras is thought to be the old Scandinavian hârr with the Romanic suffix –as, which meant grey or dimmish horsehair. Controversial is the etymological relation to the Arabic word for horse whose roman transliteration is faras.
Although the French origin of the word harassment is beyond all question, in the Oxford English Dictionary and those dictionaries basing on it a supposed Old French verb harer should be the origin of the French verb harasser, despite the fact that this verb cannot be found in French etymologic dictionaries like that of the fr:Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales or the fr:Trésor de la langue française informatisé (see also their corresponding websites as indicated in the interlinks); since the entry further alleges a derivation from hare, like in the mentioned German etymological dictionary of the French language a possible misprint of harer = har/ass/er = harasser is plausible or cannot be excluded. In those dictionaries the relationship with harassment were an interpretation of the interjection hare as to urge/set a dog on, despite the fact that it should indicate a shout to come and not to go (hare = hara = here; cf. above). The American Heritage Dictionary prudently indicates this origin only as possible.
In 1964, the United States Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, , prohibiting discrimination at work on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and sex. This later became the legal basis for early harassment law. The practice of developing workplace guidelines prohibiting harassment was pioneered in 1969, when the U.S. Department of Defense drafted a Human Goals Charter, establishing a policy of equal respect for both sexes. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson,
- the U.S. Supreme Court recognized harassment suits against employers for promoting a sexually hostile work environment. In 2006, U.S.A. President George W. Bush signed a law which prohibited the transmission of annoying messages over the Internet (aka spamming) without disclosing the sender's true identity.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) was initially enacted in 1945. The LAD prohibits harassment based on protected characteristics such as race, sex or nationality. Under the LAD, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual relations or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. There are generally two types of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer, or an employer's agent, implicitly or explicitly attempts to make submission to sexual demands a condition of employment. Thus, an employee may perceive that he or she must tolerate sexual advances or engage in a sexual relationship in order to continue employment, to achieve advancement, or to avoid adverse employment consequences such as poor evaluations or demotions. Similarly, it is unlawful for an employer or an employer's agent to condition favorable treatment such as promotions, salary increases, or preferred assignments, on an employee's acceptance of sexual advances or relations. Castronovo & McKinney, LLC can provide additional assistance regarding representation of individuals who were discriminated against by an employer.
In 1984, the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibited sexual harassment in workplaces under federal jurisdiction.
In the UK there are a number of laws protecting people from harassment including the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. For a fuller description of the laws on harassment in the UK see this page.
Both because the term is used in common English, and because where the term is defined by law, the law varies by jurisdiction, it is difficult to provide any exact definition that is accepted everywhere.
In some cultures, for instance, simply stating a political opinion can be seen as unwarranted and a deliberate attempt to intimidate — in a totalitarian society any such statement could be interpreted as an attempt to involve someone in rebel activity or implicate them in same, with the implication that if they refuse, they are putting their own life in danger. More usually, some label such as "anti-social" or related to treason is used to label such behaviour — it being treated as an offense against the state not the person. This resembles the use of psychiatry to imprison dissidents which is common in many countries.
Another example is that under some versions of Islamic Law merely insulting Islam is considered to be a harassment of all believers, and in Japan insulting any faith is usually considered taboo and has legal sanctions[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Because of these variations, there is no way even within one society to provide a truly neutral definition of harassment.
However, broad categories of harassment often recognized in law include:
- Legal harassment - Legal actions against an individual or a group, for example SLAPP suits.
- Sexual harassment (with a much stricter definition in the workplace)
- Psychological harassment - repetitive unprovoked intrusions or interruptions
- Group psychological harassment
- Hate speech - comments proveably false or irrelevant which express or encourage hate towards a particular group - another legal
Types of harassments
Harassment refers to a wide spectrum of offensive behaviour.
- Cyber bullying
- Harassment by computer
- Workplace harassment
- Sexual harassment refers to persistent and unwanted sexual advances, typically in the workplace, where the consequences of refusing are potentially very disadvantageous to the victim.
Harassment that can occur on the playground, school, in the workforce (may it be sexual harassment or verbal harassment) or any other place. Usually physical and psychological harassing behaviour perpetrated against an individual, by one or more persons.
This is humiliating or abusive behaviour that lowers a person’s self-esteem or causes them torment. This can take the form of verbal comments, actions or gestures. Falling into this category is workplace mobbing. Community Based Harassment - stalking by a group against an individual using repeated distractions that the individual is sensitized to, such as clicking an ink pen.
The targeting of an individual because of their race or ethnicity. The harassment may include words, deeds, and actions that are specifically designed to make the target feel degraded due to their race or ethnicity.
Verbal, psychological or physical harassment's used against targets because they choose to practice a specific religion. Religious harassment can also include forced and involuntary conversions.
Harassment that can happen anywhere but is most common in the workplace, and schools. It involves unwanted and unwelcome, words, deeds, actions, gestures, symbols, or behaviours of a sexual nature that make the target feel uncomfortable. Gender and sexual orientation harassment fall into this family.
The unauthorized following and surveillance of an individual, to the extent that the person's privacy is unacceptably intruded upon, and the victim fears for their safety.
Violence committed directly or indirectly by a loosely affiliated and organized group of individuals to punish or even execute a person for some alleged offence without a lawful trial. The 'offense' can range from a serious crime like murder or simple expression of ethnic, cultural, or religious attitudes. The issue of the victim's actual guilt or innocence is often irrelevant to the mob, since the mob relies on contentions that are unverifiable, unsubstantiated, or completely fabricated.
To persecute, harass, or torture in a deliberate, calculated, planned, manner. Typically the targeted individual is a subordinate, for example, a fraternity pledge, a first-year military cadet, or somebody who is considered 'inferior' or an 'outsider'. Hazing is illegal in many instances.
Unfair treatment conducted by law officials including but not limited to excessive force, profiling, threats, coercion, and racial, ethnic, religious, gender/sexual, age, or other forms of discrimination.
In some contexts of colloquial speech, the word "harassment" and its derivatives can mean in a playful manner "bothering". In computer gaming contexts, "harassment" might constitute provocative or annoying actions in the game. Harassment in strategy games may also mean early attacks aimed to stunt an opponent's growth of either economy or technology. In these contexts, the severity of the terminology is much less intense, and does not carry the same connotations as the legal definitions.
- J. Amyot, Œuvres morales, p. 181
- M. Lescarbot, Histoire de la Nouvelle France, I, 479
- Etymology of harassement in the French etymologic dictionary CNRTL (in French)
- The original text of the chant
- Etymology of harasser in the French etymologic dictionary CNRTL (in French)
- Etymology of haro
- Etymology of haras
- Etymology of harassment in OED related harassdictionaries, like the Merriam Webster
- Declan McCullagh. Create an e-annoyance, go to jail. CNET news. January 9, 2006
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