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The Word Guy: Book tells the stories behind legal expressions |
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The Word Guy: Book tells the stories behind legal expressions

| Friday, May 16, 2014 8:57 p.m

What do you call a lawyer who writes a book about words? A grammar-head shark.

Just kidding. In “Lawtalk,” librarian Fred Shapiro and lawyers James Clapp, Elizabeth Thornburg and Marc Galanter tell the fascinating stories behind many legal expressions.

We learn, for instance, that the marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court calls out “Oyez!” when the justices enter the chamber because “Oyez!” is the Anglo-Norman verb for “Hear ye!”

And we discover that colonial American laborers were called “indentured servants” because their contracts had teeth. Literally.

Because it was important to ensure that neither party would try to alter a written contract, two copies of an agreement were written side by side on the same piece of parchment.

Then the document was cut in half in a zigzag pattern so the resulting copies were indented, that is, they had jagged edges. (“Indent” derives from the Latin root “dens, dentis,” tooth.)

If a dispute arose, one party could prove his document’s legitimacy by showing that its indentations matched perfectly with the other party’s copy. Eventually, “indenture” became a general term for “agreement,” including labor contracts between masters and servants.

“Lawtalk” also debunks many common misconceptions. For instance, I’ve always believed that redundant legal doublets, such as “goods and chattels” and “ways and means,” evolved because the French Normans who conquered England in 1066 wanted to ensure that both English speakers and French speakers would understand all legal terms. Thus, they devised phrases that paired an English word (“goods,” “ways”) with a French synonym (“chattels,” “means”).

“Lawtalk” explains that, while this is true for some legal doublets, such as the two I cited, many such phrases contain two French-derived words (“aid and abet,” “necessary and proper,” “null and void”), while others use English words only (“to have and to hold,” “(without) let or hindrance” and “over and above”).

So why the repetition?

By using specialized verbal formulas, lawyers made it necessary for people to hire lawyers to draft and interpret such writing. These double phrases also fattened the incomes of court clerks and lawyers, who were often paid by the page for the legal papers they handled.

Maybe my “grammar-head shark” joke wasn’t so silly after all.

Rob Kyff is a teacher in West Hartford, Conn. Send reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, to or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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