Happy Dictionary Day! October 16th is the birthday of Noah Webster, the father of the modern dictionary. Webster’s contributions were to general lexigraphy, but there are many other kinds of dictionaries, including ones expressly devoted to legal terminology.
Law is replete with terms of art. Understanding these terms is crucial to interpreting and applying the law to different situations. Fortunately, there are a number of legal dictionaries to help when you encounter an unfamiliar term. Presently, the most widely recognized and utilized legal dictionary is Black’s Law Dictionary. Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, rely on and cite its definitions in their case opinions. Black’s is now in its 10th edition and available in WestlawNext. Also, the earliest editions have entered the public domain and are freely accessible on a variety of websites.
Other general legal dictionaries include Ballentine’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition) on Lexis Advance and, for historical legal terms, the no-longer-updated Bouvier’s available in HeinOnline. Free legal dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law and Wex – an online combination legal dictionary and encyclopedia – are accessible on Findlaw and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII), respectively. There are also specialty legal dictionaries for specific areas of law. Typically these cover highly technical practice areas, such as medical malpractice and taxation (e.g., West’s Tax Law Dictionary). Finally, for advice on the proper use of legal terminology, consult Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 3rd edition (Reference, KF156 .G367 2011).
Keeping a legal dictionary close at hand makes you a sui generis and savvy lawyer!