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Thursday, January 7, 2010

More funny legal terms

People tell me from time to time that they think the legal system is slow to change. It's true that it does honour tradition and precedent, though it changes over time. Here are some words that describe some professions that used to be part of the legal system that either don't exist any longer, or have developed into something else:

chafewax - this person's job was to prepare and apply the wax that was needed to seal the documents that were signed by a judge. The judge would then press the court's official stamp into the warm wax to leave an impression. These days no actual wax is used, though many legal documents have either a foil or paper "star" on them with a seal embossed on top, or simply the embossing alone (such as a notary public's seal).

catchpole - this person's job was to round up people who had failed to pay their bills and were being sent to debtor's prison. Because people were often, not surprisingly, reluctant to go along quietly, the catchpole used an 8-foot pole with a noose on the end to catch the person and lead him through the streets to the prison. The word catchpole referred both to the pole and the person using it. Fortunately for modern debtors, collection agencies don't use catchpoles.

crier - this person's job was to publicly announce the decisions of the local courts by walking through the streets ringing a handbell and shouting "Oyez" to get people's attention. Traditionally their uniform was a gaudy outfit consisting of robes, breeches and a three-corner hat. I haven't seen anyone dressed like that lately except for a couple of hotel doormen.

ale-conner - although this job wasn't part of the legal system at all, I still think it counts since lawyers and judges like beer as much as anyone else. An ale-conner's job was to ensure the quality of bread, beer and ale on behalf of his town or parish. The story goes that an ale-conner would pour some ale or beer on a chair then sit on it in his leather pants. If he stuck to it, it meant that the drink had too much sugar in it. These days we probably wouldn't pay a person to pour his drink on the chair and sit on it. In fact we'd probably just send him home in a cab to sober up.

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