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Saturday, July 4, 2009

On the lighter side, some funny legal terms

When people think about the law, having a chuckle isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But many of us who work in this serious profession like to take every opportunity to smile at certain aspects of the legal system. After all, it isn’t good to take yourself too seriously.

Some words that have a certain meaning to people in general can have a completely different meaning in the context of the law. Here are some examples:

1. Ignoramus – this is a Latin word that literally translates as “we ignore it”. In law, it was used by grand juries in the USA when they had heard a case against an accused person and had decided not to prosecute the person. The official finding of the jury was “ignoramus’, meaning that they were ignoring the charges against the accused person. Today the word has evolved into quite a different meaning in popular usage!

2. Pickle – in real estate law, this meant a small parcel of land enclosed by a hedge.

Some legal words are astonishing in what they tell us about how much our legal system has (thankfully) changed:

3. Cold water ordeal – in medieval England, the courts had creative, if barbaric, methods of determining whether a person was guilty of a crime. These methods were referred to as “trial by ordeal” and were based on the concept that the accused person should be subjected to something which he would not normally be expected to survive and if he was innocent, he would be saved by God. One of these trials by ordeal was the cold water ordeal in which the accused person had a rope tied around his neck and was thrown into a river. If he died, he was guilty; if he somehow survived, he was innocent. Needless to say, most were found guilty.

4. Hue and cry – in old England, when a person committed a crime, a witness or victim would raise the alarm by shouting something like “stop, thief!”. Anyone close enough to hear this “hue and cry” was expected to join in the chase to catch the offender. Eventually the verbal shouting became a written notice that was issued by the local authorities to alert the community about the offender. This notice survived in the form of a “wanted” poster seen in western movies. Today we have online and newspaper notices of fugitives as well as media distribution of security camera footage. The “hue and cry” has evolved with changing technology but the essential purpose and result are the same.

And some legal words just sound funny, which as an avid reader and writer, I enjoy:

5. Butts and bounds - the corners of the boundaries of a parcel of land where the property lines intersect.

6. Outsucken multure – in old Scotland, this was a fee paid by a farmer who went to have corn ground at a mill that is not the mill he was bound to by tenure.

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