Jargon Watch: Lawyer Speak And The Language Of Law

Should you ever find yourself in a courtroom, these words and phrases might be useful.
August 14, 2020
Jargon Watch: Lawyer Speak And The Language Of Law

Jargon is often impenetrable to the people outside a profession. That’s the whole idea behind this series: breaking down what these strange, specific terms mean. If you’re uninitiated, jargon can sound like an entirely different language, and that’s especially true for lawyer jargon. Not only is law already a notoriously complicated field that requires years of schooling to master, but lawyer jargon is often quite literally in a different language.

A Brief History Of The Language Of English Law

The phrase “the language of English law” might sound redundant, but it’s not. The “English” here just refers to “of England.” That’s because for a centuries, English law didn’t use the English language. Yes, it’s a little confusing.

The simplest version of language history would show that in the past 2,000 years, the piece of land we now call England went through three major linguistic eras. First comes Latin, which was brought to the country by Roman invaders during the first century CE. Then, a millennium later, the Normans took over the country and brought their French dialect with them. Finally, English became the primary language around the 15th century.

It’s not quite as cut and dried as that, though. For a long time, England was actually a trilingual country, with different languages being used in different contexts. English was often used by regular people as the vernacular, but Latin and French were the “prestigious” languages used in the government and the court systems. If you were to attend a trial in the 16th century, you would have heard a combination of Law Latin and Law French. It wasn’t until 1730 that English was made the official language of law throughout England.

By the time English was the official language of law, Latin and French had already lodged themselves deep within the legal system. Law Latin and Law French are distinct from their non-legal predecessors. Even when Law French was in common practice in England, a Parisian French speaker would’ve had a hard time decoding it. Lawyers basically took these two languages and gave general words very specific meanings; the word tort in French, for example, just means “wrong,” but it very specifically refers to a kind of law that deals with civil cases in English. Because of how specific legal language became, it was impossible to disentangle English law from Latin and French. You would’ve had to create a whole new vocabulary, which lawyers set in their ways weren’t too keen on.

Looking at lawyer jargon today, you can clearly see how French and Latin are still in constant use. Let’s look at a selection of terms used in law today, noting which language they come from.

A Glossary Of Lawyer Jargon

Caveat emptor — meaning “let the buyer beware” in Latin, this is a phrase that means the purchaser of a product is the one responsible for checking the quality of a product before buying it, and therefore the seller cannot be held liable for any defects.

Culprit — the guilty party. The word is an abbreviation of culpable: prest, which is the start of a phrase that would be said by the prosecutor at the beginning of a trial: Culpable: prest d’averrer nostre bille (“Guilty: ready to present our case”).

Defendant — in a trial, the defendant is the person who is being charged in a case. This word was borrowed from French, but can be traced all the way back to Latin.

De facto/De jure — these two phrases mean “in fact” and “in law,” respectively. To use a language example, the official language of England is de jure English, because there’s a national law to make it so. In contrast, the official language of the United States is de facto English because, while it’s not written into law, English is used as any official language would be.

Discovery — when one side of a case wants to see what documents and information the other has, they may be able to obtain it “on discovery.” This is one of the few phrases on the list that seems to come from English originally.

Felony — a serious crime that can range from arson to homicide. The punishment may be a year in prison all the way up to (in some parts of the United States) death. It comes from the Old French felon, which means the same thing in French and English today.

Habeas corpus — in Latin, this phrase means simply “to have the body.” It refers to a specific writ that an arrested person can use to demand appearance before a judge in the case of being unlawfully imprisoned.

In flagrante delicto — Latin for “in blazing offense.” While you could hear this in a courtroom to refer to someone who is caught while doing a crime, it’s more commonly used by people as a euphemism for walking in on people having sex.

Jury — this is the group of people who watch a case unfold and make the verdict. The word is borrowed from French juree (and can be traced back to Latin iurate). 

Law — it may be a stretch to call this “lawyer jargon,” but it’s fun to note that law actually doesn’t come from French or Latin. It comes from the Old Norse lag.

Mea culpa — an admittance of having done something wrong, from Latin meaning “through my fault.”

Modus operandi — often shortened to “M.O.,” a person’s modus operandi is the reason they’ve done something. It comes from Latin, meaning “manner of operation.”

Parole — a person can be released on parole either temporarily or permanently for a few different reasons. While on parole, a person should be on good behavior, which is why this phrase comes from the French parole meaning “word,” as in a prisoner is giving their “word” to not break the law.

Plaintiff — from the Old French plaintif, which means (funnily enough) “complaining,” this term refers to the person who is bringing a lawsuit against someone else.

Prima facie — from the Latin “on its face,” this phrase is used in law to refer to a case that appears to have enough evidence to show that, at the very least, it’s a case worth investigating.

Pro bono — when legal work is done for free, it’s pro bono, though in Latin this literally means “for good.”

Pro se — this Latin phrase literally means “for himself,” and in a courtroom it is used when defendants are representing themselves (instead of using a lawyer).

Prosecutor — the person or group of people who is charging the defendant. The word comes from the Latin prosecutor

Subpoena — most often refers to a writ (or a written command) that someone must appear in court. It comes from Latin, meaning “under penalty,” as in you must appear in court or there will be a penalty.

Testimony — from the Old French testimonie, a testimony is a statement given to a court of law, which can be either spoken or written. Despite some joke etymology rumors, the word has nothing to do with the male genitalia.

Verdict — the final decision in the case, made by the jury. This word comes from the French verdit, meaning “true saying.” 

Viz. — a common abbreviation in law that’s a shortening of the Latin word videlicet (meaning “namely”).

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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