Jargon Watch: Lawyer Speak And The Language Of Law

Should you ever find yourself in a courtroom, these words and phrases might be useful.
Lawyers gathered around a table, presumably using lawyer jargon

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

Acquittal  — a certification of a person’s innocence, freeing them from the charges of a crime. This can come from a jury’s “not guilty” verdict or a judge’s decision.

Affidavit — a written statement made under oath.

Arbitration — a private process for resolving disputes outside of the courts. A neutral third party hears the evidence of the case and makes a decision.

Bar — this refers to the legal profession as an institution. A bar association is a group of attorneys. In the United States, you have to be admitted to the bar to practice law, but only certain states mandate that lawyers be members of local bar associations.

Bench — the area of the courtroom occupied by the judge or judges.

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.

Contempt of court — disregard for or failure to obey the rules and authority of the court. Disrespecting a judge or disobeying a court’s orders are both grounds to be held in contempt.

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.

Ex parte — Latin for “from a side,” ex parte is when one party in a case speaks with a judge without the presence of the other party. It’s generally considered improper except in special cases, like when domestic abuse victims request restraining orders.

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.

Gag order — a court order restricting parties from commenting on a case publicly or with an unauthorized third party.

Good faith — the assumption that all parties will be honest, fair and sincere in their dealings.

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.

Hung jury — a jury unable to reach a consensus or verdict.

Inculpatory evidence — evidence that establishes the guilt of the defendant. Conversely, exculpatory evidence is evidence that establishes the innocence of the defendant.

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.”

Natural Person — simply means an individual, not a corporate entity.  (Remember, in the United States corporations are technically people.)

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

Recess — a break in a trial or court proceeding.

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.

Tort — a negligent or intentional injury or wrongful act against a person or their property, allowing for a civil case to be brought.

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”).

Wobbler — a crime that can be punished as either a misdemeanor (a crime with a less severe sentence, usually less than one year in prison) or a felony (a crime with a more severe sentence, usually more than one year in prison).

This article was originally published on August 14, 2020. It has been updated with extra research by Dylan Lyons.

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