brought to you by William the Conqueror

In 1066, William the Conqueror came across the English Channel from what is now France and conquered the land that is today called England. The conquering Normans spoke French and the defeated Saxons spoke Old English. The Normans took over the court system, and their language became the language of the law. For several centuries after the French-speaking Normans took over England, lawyers and judges in English courts spoke in French. When English courts eventually returned to using English, they continued to use many French words.

Why should you care about this ancient history? The American colonists considered themselves Englishmen, so they used the English legal system and adopted its language. This means that American legal opinions today are littered with weird French terms. Examples include plaintiff, defendant, tort, contract, crime, judge, attorney, counsel, court, verdict, party, appeal, evidence, and jury. These words are the everyday language of the American legal system. And they’re all from the French, brought to you by William the Conqueror in 1066.

Mind you, it’s not just French: legalese English contains a fair amount of Latin too. Here is a short glossary of legal terms which I compiled for my own use while attending the online CopyrightX course.

abrogate to annul; to abolish
acquiescence submission to an injury by the party injured, or tacit concurrence in the action of another
adduce to cite (reasons, examples, etc.) as evidence or proof
adjudge to declare to be; to deem or determine to be
amicus (plural amici) someone not a party to a case who submits a brief and/or presents oral argument in that case
concurrence or concurring opinion a written opinion by one or more judges that explains a vote in favour of the winning side but based on a different legal rationale
countervail to counteract, counterbalance or neutralise
damages (plural only) the money paid or awarded to a plaintiff in a civil action
de minimis beneath judicial notice
defendant in civil proceedings, the party responding to the complaint; in criminal proceedings, the accused
defendant in error the party that won in the lower court and must defend the lower court’s decision; appellee
defender (in Scottish law) defendant
dictum (plural dicta) a statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative though not binding
disposition the action the court took; final decision or settlement
dissent or dissenting opinion a written opinion by one or more judges expressing disagreement with the majority opinion of the court
enjoin to prohibit or restrain by a judicial order or decree; to put an injunction on
estoppel a rule of evidence whereby a person is barred from denying the truth of a fact that has already been settled
holding a determination of law made by a court: under this law, with these facts, this result
imprimatur any mark of official approval
impute to attribute or ascribe
laches sleeping on one’s rights
merits substance, distinguished from form or procedure
per curiam decision (or opinion) a ruling issued by an appellate court of multiple judges in which the decision reflects a common view among all the judges
petition a formal written request for judicial action; appeal
plaintiff a party bringing a suit in civil law against a defendant
plaintiff in error a party who appeals the decision of a lower court; appellant
prima facie at first sight; on the face of it
pursuant in conformance to, or in agreement with
pursuer (in Scottish law) a plaintiff
recuse (transitive) to refuse or reject (a judge); (intransitive) to refuse to act as a judge
remand to send a case back to a lower court for further consideration
respondent the party that won before the lower court and is responding to the petition in the higher court
reverse to change a decision (of a court) into its opposite
scienter knowledge of one’s own illegal acts; intent
stare decisis the principle of following judicial precedent
sui generis in a class of its own; one of a kind
trier a person appointed by law to try challenges of jurors
vacate to have a court judgement set aside; to annul
without prejudice without affecting a legal interest

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