The Language of Law: Is It English, and Is It That Important?

Everybody is familiar with the term “legalese” and even though the words sound like common English, is it really English?

In short, no.

Since I have made an affirmative statement or stipulated to something here let me back that up. I speak common English so I will quote from a common dictionary.

“le-gal-ese n. the conventional language of legal forms, documents, etc., involving special vocabulary and formulations, often thought of as abstruse and incomprehensible to the layman.” Webster’s Dictionary of American English 3rd College Edition (1988) Id. 771.


“legal forms, documents, etc.” – Etcetera meaning another form including but not limited to spoken. (in the common sense)

“involving special vocabulary and formulations” – special vocabulary meaning you need training to understand it or formulations of it. You wouldn’t understand an algorithmic formulation unless you have been trained to understand algorithms would you.

“abstruse” – Synonyms: hidden; obscure; arcane; esoteric; little known; recondite; difficult; puzzling; perplexing; cryptic; enigmatic; complex; involved, over/above one’s head; unfathomable; mysterious…

“layman” – the common man; not a member of the clergy; a person not belonging to or skilled in a given profession. Webster’s supra Id. 766

So as you can see, legalese is not Common English. An example I like to use to illustrate this concept is a word I used above, “understand” or “understanding”. To you and me the meaning goes to comprehension, but not in law.

“An agreement, esp. of an implied or tacit nature” Black’s Law Dictionary 2nd Pocket Edition (2001) Id. 732

Let’s say you are fighting a traffic (sic) ticket and you have a rock solid defense plead before the court. The judge is not there to see justice is served, he is there to collect revenue from you. He is going to ask you if you understand the charge. You might think, ‘well I know what speeding is and I know I was charged with speeding so,’ “Yes your Honor, I understand the charge.” The judge will then say, “Good, that will be $500.00 and you can pay that to the clerk at the window. Next case.”

What just happened? You said yes I agree with the charge. It was implied that someone was speeding and the tacit nature of the charge was that it was you, and you agreed. Case closed.

No, legalese is not English, and it is very important to know what you write in your pleadings and what comes out of your mouth in court.

Remember this: If you are to know what impact a word is going to have on your live you must look not only at the definition, but you must also look at the assumption upon which the definition rests, and the implication thus created.

Steve Skidmore

Get Jurisdictionary NOW!!!


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