A Review of Legal Dictionaries

Christine B. Feak and Susan M. Reinhart

(a shorter version of this appeared in American Language Review, January 1998)

As growing numbers of ESP professionals are working with students and practitioners of law, the need for good reference materials has become more apparent. One of the first resources these ESP professionals may want to have is a legal dictionary. Of the many available, Black's Law Dictionary (published by West Publishing) is the old standby-the one dictionary that virtually every American law student or practitioner has at hand. Black's has been the "standard authority of legal definitions since 1891" (iii). Comprising around 30,000 terms, Black's abridged sixth edition is the most comprehensive of all legal dictionaries, providing not only extended definitions of terms, but also reference to cases and federal and state law within definitions, along with elements for legal theories. For an instructor new to English for Legal Purposes, however, Black's can be intimidating. Some definitions are technical and difficult to comprehend, others are not well written, and many lack clear examples. The good news is that there are other legal dictionaries available that can supplement or replace Black's, depending on one's ESP needs.

We have chosen for this review four widely available legal English dictionaries that may prove useful for Legal ESPers: Peter Collin Publishing Dictionary of Law, 2nd edition (1996) along with its companion vocabulary workbook, Check Your Vocabulary for Law (1996) by David Riley, Real Life Dictionary of the Law (1997, General Publishing Group), Dictionary of Legal Terms 2nd edition (1993, Barron's), and Mellinkoff's Dictionary of American Legal Usage (1992, West Publishing). Each of these dictionaries is aimed at native speakers of English, although the Peter Collin Publishing Dictionary of Law and the accompanying Check Your Vocabulary for Law have considered non-native speaking students and practitioners of law as possible users, as evidenced by the workbook. A summary of the features of the dictionaries and sample entries can be found in Table 1 and Table Two respectively at the end of this review.

Before examining each of the texts, a few general points need to be made. Unlike many non-specialist dictionaries, none of the dictionaries we have examined indicates the corpus from which the terms have been taken. Parts of speech are given by only two: Dictionary of Law and Real Life Dictionary of the Law. Pronunciation guidance is given for only Latin and French terms in each of the dictionaries, except the Dictionary of Law, which provides no pronunciation guide.

The Peter Collin Dictionary of Law is a compact volume containing over 7000 terms in 258 pages. The legal emphasis of this volume is on British Law, although there are a significant number of references to American legal terminology. A typical entry consists of a bolded term, the part of speech, and then brief defining information. Definitions are generally clear and well-written, but often incomplete due to brevity. Nevertheless, they are sufficiently complete to provide a basic understanding of a term. Sample phrases and sentences demonstrating usage are provided. Many of the terms are followed by comments which often clarify differences between legal concepts. Notes after some definitions provide grammar explanation such as irregular verb forms and plurals of some unusual words. Samples of British documents given in a supplement at the back may be useful for those interested in British law. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the fact that the dictionary contains both British and American legal terms, it lacks a pronunciation guide, which can be problematic not only for non-native, but native speakers, particularly when it comes to Latin or other foreign terminology. Even though the dictionary does include much American legal terminology, there are some noticeable gaps in coverage; terms such as sexual harassment, color of law, voire dire are absent. Moreover, given its emphasis on British law, distinctions between American and British legal terminology are not always made; e.g. notifiable offence. Compared to other dictionaries, Dictionary of Law has few cross references to guide the user to related useful terminology; however, in some instances related terminology may be handled in the comments.

The Dictionary of Law has a companion 46-page workbook entitled Check Your Vocabulary for Law, which is designed for either classroom use or self-study. All of the worksheets can be legally photocopied. The workbook includes an answer key at the back. The workbook is aimed at the intermediate level, although, according to the author, it may be used by less proficient students that have a good passive legal vocabulary. Since it is based on the Dictionary of Law, the workbook can supposedly be used by an instructor with no legal background. Rather than focusing on terminology from a particular area of law, the workbook highlights vocabulary from many areas, including criminal, business, and civil law. There is a variety of exercises, which range from word associations to fill-in-the blank to crossword puzzles. The Latin pair up exercise on page 26 is quite nice, challenging students to test their knowledge of Latin expressions. A note of caution with this exercise: unless one has some knowledge of Latin Legal terms, it would be nearly impossible to do without the Dictionary of Law close at hand. While most of the exercises are a form of fill-in, the crossword puzzles at the end of the exercises are designed to have students work together to complete them. In this paired activity, each student has a half-completed puzzle. Students exchange clues that they create themselves to help their partners complete the puzzle. Students are instructed to speak only in English, not to give the answers, and not to show their partners their crosswords. These communicative crosswords are quite challenging and most likely beyond the ability of lower level students. The multiple meaning exercise on page 32 is rather unusual. While pointing out the important fact that many words have multiple meanings, the exercise focuses on words that have such different multiple meanings that it does not seem worth drawing attention to them. In item eight, for example, not only are the answers two different parts of speech, but their meanings are unrelated.

  1. This word means: (correct answer: express)
The criminal slang exercise on page 33, while interesting, is of little value to a criminal law student in a U.S. context. From the exercise we learn that in Britain a screw is a prison guard and a mug is a person that is easily deceived, slang which is not generally used in the U.S. The workbook is perhaps most useful as a supplement to an intermediate level legal reading course as it is designed to enhance a learner's passive vocabulary. Although there is some emphasis on pronunciation and speaking, its focus is clearly on vocabulary recognition. Little attention is paid to actually helping students learn to use the vocabulary actively. Advanced non-native speakers and seasoned legal ESP instructors may not find the workbook very useful.

The Real Life Dictionary of the Law (1997) is a response to the growing number of highly publicized trials in the United States. Authors Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen Thompson Hill designed their dictionary for "all levels of courtroom spectators, law aficionados, and citizens with pending lawsuits". The dictionary may also prove useful for beginning law students. The volume, which defines over 3000 terms and acronyms in 479 pages, is written in clear, user-friendly language that the typical lay person can understand. Entries begin with a bolded term, followed by the part of speech, and then an extended definition. The definitions may include a discussion of differences in state law (e.g. negligence) and mention the key elements of specific legal theories. Definitions often include examples to clarify a point. Samples sentences using the term defined are sometimes included, thus providing the user information about collocations and grammar associated with a particular term.

Of particular interest to an instructor of English for Legal Purposes are the Appendices that contain some useful information including the U.S. Constitution, an overview of the U.S. court system, major Supreme Court decisions, State Bar Associations, legal trivia, capital punishment state by state, and a list of the top 30 U.S. legal films, information that may be helpful to have at one's fingertips. The list of the top legal films is especially helpful if an instructor wants to supplement a legal English class with a film series focusing on legal issues. Except for the fact that the examples are somewhat difficult to find within the entries and the definitions are sometimes very long, the Real Life Dictionary is a good alternative to Black's.

Like the Real Life Dictionary, The Dictionary of Legal Terms, 2nd edition (1993) by Steven H. Gifis was also written for lay people. Considerably smaller than the other dictionaries discussed thus far, The Dictionary of Legal Terms contains 2000 terms in 517 pages. However, whatever this dictionary lacks in terms of comprehensiveness, it makes up for in ease of use, clarity, and quality of examples. Entries consist of a bolded and capitalized term followed by a definition. Definitions are short, to the point, and generally accurate; however this brevity can sometimes lead to imprecision. Even so, if a quick definition is all that is needed, this dictionary is quite good. Cross references to related terms are bolded and therefore easy to see. Examples are set off in a separate paragraph following the definition. The definitions of some Latin terms may not be less helpful since some are merely translated. An Appendix provides some basic information about U.S. law and lawyers including FAQs such as when and why someone might need a lawyer, what a will is, and what rights an arrested person has.

If there has ever been a legal dictionary that is as interesting, and ,at times, as entertaining to read as it is useful, it is Mellinkoff's Dictionary of American Legal Usage (1992). As the author David Mellinkoff has proclaimed, "American law dictionaries go back to 1839. This one is new and different " (viii). Containing around 4500 terms, this truly different dictionary is aimed at legal students and practitioners. Entries are bolded and followed by definitions of varying lengths. The definitions are void of legalese and represent legal writing at its best. Mellinkoff not only provides excellent, generally clear definitions of terms, but also includes his personal evaluative commentary on the usefulness of terminology, clarifies the current state of a particular legal term, or highlights the imprecision of legal usage. Unfortunately, this commentary may not be fully appreciated by even an advanced non-native speaker of English. One weakness of this reference worth noting is the extensive cross referencing that prevents a user from always quickly finding the definition of a term. Related terms are generally grouped together, a feature which is useful for users new to law, but rather troublesome for a user who simply needs a quick definition.

Each of the dictionaries we have discussed have strengths. The main significant difference among them is the comprehensiveness of the coverage and in the case of Mellinkoff the presence of evaluative commentary. Any of the four would be reasonable supplements to or in some cases replacements of the old standby Black's.

Table 1 summarizes some of the important characteristics of the four dictionaries, excluding the Vocabulary for Law Workbook.

Table 1. Summary of Dictionary Characteristics
Title Audience Number of terms American or British Law Pronunciation Guide Advantages/Disadvantages
Dictionary of Law2nd edition, 1996 Not clearly identified, but likely law students and lay people; possibly para-legals 7000 both, but focused more on British no Advantages
  • Clear and easy to follow definitions
  • Samples sentences
  • Workbook available
  • Insufficient number of cross references
  • Some important U.S legal terms missing
  • Does not consistently distinguish between British and American law
  • Emphasis on British law
Real Life Dictionary of the Law, 1997 Lay people and possibly law students ~3000 American only for Latin and French terms Advantages
  • Useful appendix for ESP instructors
  • Generally clear and straightforward definitions
  • Examples are difficult to find within the definitions.
  • Not always convenient if only a quick definition is needed because of the length of some definitions
Dictionary of Legal Terms,2nd edition, 1993 Lay people 2000 American only for Latin and French terms Advantages
  • Generally clear and easy to follow definitions, despite the use of some technical terms in the definitions
  • Clearly marked, relevant examples often demonstrate how a term is used.
  • Good cross references, which are bolded
  • Contains only 2000 words
  • Because of brevity, the definitions may be incomplete.
Mellinkoff's Dictionary of American Legal Usage, 1992 Professionals ~4500 American present when a term is unusual, exotic, controversial or when needed to avoid confusion Advantages
  • Author's personal commentary on terms, which can be both insightful and entertaining
  • Very clear, carefully written, accurate definitions
  • Writing style, though unusual at times, represents good legal writing.
  • Clearly marked examples.
  • Extensive cross-referencing makes it difficult to quickly find certain terms.
  • Non-native speakers may have difficulty with the personal commentary.
Black's Law Dictionary, centennial edition, 1991 Students and legal professionals ~30,000 American but some British law yes for Latin and foreign terms; some non-foreign terms as well, but its hard to see why these other terms have been chosen. Advantages
  • Comprehensive and encyclopedic.
  • Reflects developments & changes in the law.
  • Appendices contain the Constitution, members of the Supreme Court (past and present).
  • Reference to specific sections of federal laws and some state law.
  • Refers to some cases, rules, and regulations in definitions.
  • Lacks practical examples.
  • Some definitions are very technical and thus hard to understand
  • Some definitions are poorly written, e.g. reasonable noticeand leasehold.

Table 2. Sample Definitions of Caveat Emptor from Each of the Dictionaries Discussed
Dictionary of Law, 2nd edition, 1996 Latin phrase meaning 'let the buyer beware': phrase meaning that the buyer is himself responsible for checking that what he buys is in good order
Real Life Dictionary of the Law, 1997 (kah-vee-ott emptor) Latin for "let the buyer beware." The basic premise that the buyer buys at his/her own risk and therefore should examine and test a product himself/herself for obvious defects and imperfections. Caveat emptor still applies even if the purchase is "as is" or when a defect is obvious upon reasonable inspection before purchase. Since implied warranties (assumed quality of goods) and consumer protections have come upon the legal landscape, the seller is held to a higher standard of disclosure than "buyer beware" and has responsibility for defects which could not be noted by casual inspection (particularly since modern devices cannot be tested except by use and many products are pre-packaged). (See: consumer protection laws)
Dictionary of Legal Terms, 2nd edition, 1993 (kä' -v eät emp' -tor) Lat.: let the buyer beware. This phrase expresses the rule of law that the purchaser buys at his own risk.
Mellinkoff's Dictionary of American Legal Usage, 1992 (L.: let the buyer beware): an old and worthless maxim reflecting an ancient view of the perils of a free and fraudridden marketplace.  see maxims
Black's Law Dictionary, centennial edition, 1991 /kæviyet ém(p)ter/kéyviyetº/. Let the buyer beware. This maxim summarizes the rule that a purchaser must examine, judge, and test for himself. This maxim is more applicable to judicial sales, auctions, and the like, than to consumer goods where strict liability, warranty, and other consumer protection laws protect the consumer-buyer. See also Warning.

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