French fries

Legalese: With Chips or French Fries?

There are probably many lessons to be learned from the recent Presidential election, but one of them is surely the value of plain speaking. Yet American lawyers seem to love obfuscatory language, often choosing to use Latinisms that they themselves don’t understand in the apparent belief that Latin is the true language of the common law. 

In fact, however, this could hardly be farther from the truth. Latin had been a dead language for several centuries by the time that Henry II established in England what became the foundation of the common law. As I pointed out in a previous post, Henry spoke only Norman French, because he himself came from Normandy, in what is now northern France. The original language of the common law, therefore, became Norman French (sometimes termed Anglo-French because it came to be spoken more in England than in France). 

Of course, the plain-speaking in the Presidential election would have been all the better if it had also been accurate. But perhaps we lawyers can show the way by actually understanding the origins and meanings of the legal terms that we use every day. As the following table demonstrates, many of the most important have their roots in Norman French: 

Legal Term Norman Origin Original Meaning
account acont reckoning of money to be paid
accuse acuser to indict, reproach, blame
arraign araigner, areiner to accuse
arrest arester to stop
assault asaut attack
autrefois acquit autrefois acquit previously acquitted
bail baillier to control, guard, or deliver
bailey (as in Old Bailey) bailye, baillye enclosed court
bailiff baillif administrative official, like a deputy
bailment bailement controlling, guarding
cause cause cause, reason, lawsuit
chattel chatel cattle, goods
circuit circuit a journey around something
complain complaign lament
counsel counseil advice, counsel
court cort king’s court, or princely residence
debt dete thing owed
debtor detour someone who owes
defendant défendant defending
detinue detenue detention
duty duete due, owed
enjoin enjoindre to impose (on), inflict
excuse escuser pardon, exonerate
judge juge public officer appointed to administer the law
party partie side, part
plaintiff pleintif a complaining, wretched, or miserable person
probable probable provable, demonstrable
process proces development, legal trial
proof preove proof, test, experience
quit quite, quitte free, clear, discharged
recuse recuser make an objection against
replevin replevin pledge, protect, warrant
servant servant a serving person
suit siwte pursuit, hunt
tenant tenaunt holding, possessing
tenement tenement holding
tort tort a wrong
voir(e) dire voire dire to tell the truth (not “to see them say”)

Sources: Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, and Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary

No doubt there are many other examples. If anyone feels like suggesting any, I’ll add them to the list.