Common Words Derived from Legalese

Lawyers are always being nagged for the impenetrable jargon they put on display. Not only is casually throwing out a term of art considered pretentious, some people will even view it with a tinge of suspicion — a sign that the scoundrels are, once again, trying to hide behind fancy words.


Well, hard-done-by lawyers need not stand for this any longer. In the September and October issues of Lexpert, our resident etymology expert, Howard Richler, lays out a dozen or so common words and expressions with surprisingly esoteric legal origins.

These subtle legal terms, once useful only in contracts and courtrooms, have been fully integrated into the common lexicon; some have even evolved beyond their original meanings to become everyday colloquialisms.

Take the word “curfew”:

CURFEW – If you establish a curfew for a teenager, you may be doing so to protect the young hellion from metaphorical burns. A curfew, however, was established originally not to avoid metaphorical fires, but actual ones. In medieval Europe, many communities enacted a regulation whereby a bell was rung at a fixed hour in the evening signalling that street fires be extinguished, sometimes by covering the fire. This applied also to lights and was termed couvre feu, French for “cover fire.” Couvre feu morphed almost immediately in English to “curfew,” and by the 13th century “curfew” merely designated the time the evening bell was rung.

… or “demise”:

DEMISE – This word was borrowed from the field of law. Its first definition from the early 16th century in the OED is “Conveyance or transfer of an estate by will or lease.” The key to understanding the shift of meaning is the word “transfer.” Later in the century the transfer in question became the devolution of sovereignty that occurred with the death of a king. Hence, by the 18th century, demise became just another of the many euphemisms for “death.” Since the 20th century, the word has taken on a much broader meaning, often used to connote a failure of a business.

… or even the most commonly vague word of them all, “thing”:

THING – This king of non-specific words is one of the oldest ones in our language, but originally it enjoyed a rather specific meaning: a judicial assembly. (This judicial sense is seen in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, which means “great thing.”) From there it came to refer to a cause brought before such an assembly, and soon thereafter to any cause in general. From here it was only a small step for the word to refer to any matter to which one is concerned, and later to any deed, circumstance or phenomenon.

So, the next time anyone asks you to drop the legalese and speak plain English, you can just tell them that you’re contributing essential ideas to the English language.

Howard Richler’s entire column can be read in two parts in the September issue, here, and the October issue, here.

David Dias

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