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Understanding Latin Legalese

Most lawyers love to throw around Latin phrases. The reason for this is that ancient Rome's legal system has had a strong influence on the legal systems of most western countries. After all, at one time, the Romans had conquered most of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The Roman motto was divide et impera (dee-vee-deh eht im-peh-rah) — "divide and conquer." As they conquered nations, they set out to "Latinize" the "barbarians" (anyone who wasn't Roman). Their goal was to teach them how to think, act, and be like real Romans. As the Roman Empire slowly crumbled and disappeared, the new orders in all these lands gradually adapted the existing legal system. England (and most of its former colonies) and the United States of America use a variation of the old Roman law called "Common Law." This is why lawyers today love those Latin phrases! (Well, that and the fact that you can't get out of law school without mastering them.)

This article gives you the information that you need to make sense of what your lawyer, judge, or parole officer is saying. Knowing what a sentence or phrase, like "The case is now sub judice (sub you-dee-kay)" or "What you are proposing is contra legem (kon-trah lay-ghem)," means, can help — even when you're just watching Court TV or The Practice.

English legal terms are full of Latin words and phrases. Several of these terms are so common, you use them today without any problem or confusion. Take these words for example:

  • alibi (ah-lee-bee; elsewhere, at another place). If you're asked to provide an alibi for your whereabouts, you know that you need to tell where you were when a crime occurred to prove that you couldn't have been the one who did the awful deed.
  • alias (ah-lee-ahs; at another time, otherwise). Today, alias often refers to an alternative name people generally use to conceal their identity. "John Smith alias Henry Taylor alias Clyde the Hustler" means John Smith is otherwise known as Henry Taylor who is otherwise known as Clyde the Hustler.
  • per se (purr say; by itself). Also meaning "as such" in English usage, per se is used casually in English conversations: I didn't call him stupid, per se. I simply said he had plenty to learn.
  • versus (wer-soos; turned). Often abbreviated as vs., the more common English meaning is "against" or "in contrast to": In the case Roe versus Wade, privacy in cases of abortion was an issue.

Table 1 lists other common Latin words used in English courts and legal proceedings. (Keep in mind that the pronunciation here shows how the Romans would have pronounced these words.)

Table 1: Common Latin Words Used Today

Word

Pronunciation

Original Meaning

Modern Meaning

affidavit

uhf-fee-day-wit

he pledged

a sworn, written statement

bona fide

boh-nuh fee-day

(in) good faith

sincere, genuine

habeas corpus

ha-bay-us kor-pus

may you have the body

bring a person before a court

per diem

pur dee-em

per day, by the day

daily

pro bono

pro bo-no

for the good

done for free for the public good

status quo

stuh-toos kwo

the existing condition or state of affairs

how things are currently

sub poena

soob poi-na

under the penalty

an order commanding a person to appear in court under a penalty for not appearing

The following sections offer more Latin words used in courts today. Like the preceding words, you may have heard many of these words already; you may even be using them without knowing what they really mean. Don't worry. Many of those using them don't know either.

Common courtroom Latin

Many of the terms that lawyers and other legal folk use have come down to us in their original Latin forms. Table 2 lists some of the more common Latin words that are still used today. The following list has even more examples:

  • ex officio: This word would appear in a Latin sentence such as the following:
    Imperator erat ex officio quoque dux exercitus.
    eem-pe-ra-tawr e-rut eks off-ee-kee-oh kwo-kwe dooks eks-er-key-toos.
    The emperor was by virtue of his position also the leader of the army.
    Today, you see or hear this word in a sentence like this:
    The headmaster of the school is ex officio also a member of the school board.
  • persona non grata: This word would appear in a Latin sentence such as the following:
    Post caedem Caesaris, Brutus erat habitus persona non grata Romae.
    post ki-dem ki-sa-ris, broo-tus e-rut ha-bee-tus per-sow-na non gra-ta rom-igh.
    After the assassination of Caesar, Brutus was regarded a persona non grata in Rome.
    Today, you see or hear this word in a sentence like this:
    After his conviction for embezzling funds, John was treated like a persona non grata by his former colleagues.

You can hear these words and other words (shown in Table 2) in many places — particularly on TV or in the movies. They're common enough that the audience can get the gist of their meaning and still follow the story line, but they're obscure enough to make the actors sound like experts in the law. (In the movie Silence of the Lambs, did you know what Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lechter means when he says to agent Starling, "Quid pro quo, Clarese. Quid pro quo"? If you look at Table 2, you will!)

Table 2: Latin Words Used in English Courts

Word

Pronunciation

Original Meaning

Modern Meaning

ad hoc

ad hok

to this

for a specific purpose, case, or situation

corpus delicti

kor-pus de-lick-tee

body of the crime

material evidence in a crime

de facto

day fak-toe

from the fact

in reality; actually; in effect

de iure

day you-ray

from the law

according to law; by right

ad infinitum

ad in-fee-nee-toom

forever

forever

in absentia

in ab-sen-tee-ah

in (his/her) absence

in (his/her) absence

in camera

in ka-me-rah

in a room

in private; no spectators allowed

in loco parentis

in lo-ko pa-ren-tis

in the place of a parent

in the place of a parent

ipso facto

eep-so fak-toe

by the fact itself

by that very fact

locus delicti

low-koos day-lick-tee

scene of the crime

scene where a crime took place

modus operandi

moh-dus o-per-un-dee

mode of working

method of operating

nolo contendere

no-lo kon-ten-de-re

I do not wish to contend

a plea by the defendant that's equivalent to an admission of guilt (and leaves him subject to punishment) but allows him the legal option to deny the charges later

prima facie

pree-mah fah-key-ay

at first face

at first sight

pro forma

pro for-ma

for the sake of form

done as formality, done for the show

quid pro quo

kwid pro kwo

this for that

something for something; tit for tat; an equal exchange

Less common Latin phrases

We often refer to the language that lawyers use as legalese because it has so many Latin phrases and words. Table 3 lists a few of the less common Latin phrases that you're likely to hear only if you — or someone you know — actually ends up in a court of law.

Table 3: Other Latin Legal Terms

Word

Pronunciation

Original Meaning

Modern Meaning

a mensa et toro

ah men-sa eht to-row

from table and bed

legal separation

casus belli

ka-soos bel-lee

occasion of war

an event that justifies a war

cui bono

coo-ee bo-no

for whom the good

whom does it benefit?

(in) flagrante delicto

in fla-gran-tay day-lick-toe

while the crime is burning

red-handed, in the act

inter alia

in-ter ah-lee-ah

among other things

among other things

mutatis mutandis

moo-tah-tees moo-tun-dees

having changed what must be changed

after making the necessary changes

non compos mentis

non kom-pos men-tis

not of sound mind

mentally incompetent

obiter dictum

oh-bee-ter deek-toom

something said in passing

something a judge says in arguing a point, but has no bearing on the final decision

onus probandi

oh-nis pro-bun-dee

burden of proving

burden of proof

pendente lite

pen-den-tay lee-tay

while judgment is pending

a case in progress

res ipsa loquitur

rays eep-sa lo-kwee-tur

the matter itself speaks

it goes without saying

sine qua non

see-nay kwa non

without which not

an indispensable condition; a prerequisite

sine die

see-nay dee-ay

without a day

postponed indefinitely

sub judice

sub you-dee-kay

under the judge

pending judgment

ultra vires

ool-trah wee-rays

beyond strength

outside one's jurisdiction

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