Law is full of legal terms of art that are used to express a specific thing or idea in a legal context. While some may dismiss legal language as “legalese,” the words that lawyers and legal scholars use when talking about law are important because they communicate specific legal concepts, rather than general ideas.
Take, for example, a word like fraud. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, fraud is an “intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right” or, more generally, “an act of deceiving or misrepresenting.”
A person can also be a fraud (suggested synonym: impostor).
If you look up the word “fraud” in a legal dictionary, the basic definition is largely the same. However, that is not the end of the story.
The definition of “fraud” in the Bouvier Law Dictionary that sits on my desk is quite a bit longer than the Merriam-Webster definition. According to Bouvier, a fraud can be “actual” (“affirmative statement of misrepresentation”) or “constructive” (when the actor, knowing that it will be relied upon by someone to his or her detriment, “conceals a fact or is silent regarding it”). Fraud can be a criminal action, and it can also void a contract.
That said, not everything that people may think is “fraud” actually is. According to Bouvier, “a statement that is too outlandish to be reasonably believed, one that requires illegal conduct in order to rely upon it, or one that is too general to be the basis for specific reliance may not be fraudulent.”
So, before a (good, responsible) lawyer tosses around a term like “fraud” or “fraudulent” to describe an action or a person, he or she should probably double-check its legal definition, especially since the use of that word may have legal implications in both civil and criminal contexts. Because language is important to lawyers and legal scholars, we should know where to look up legal terms of art to make sure that we understand and are using them correctly. The law library has a lot of resources for this type of research.
Legal dictionaries like the Bouvier Law Dictionary described above provide legal definitions of words and phrases. Both the Westlaw and Lexis Advance subscription databases include legal dictionaries in their collections. One of the most well-known American legal dictionaries, Black’s Law Dictionary, is available through Westlaw. To access it, in the Westlaw home screen’s search box, start typing “Black’s Law Dictionary” and select it from the drop-down menu that appears below the search box.
Harvard’s libraries have more than 600 titles that are classified as legal dictionaries that were published in 2000 or later. To view a list of them, run this HOLLIS search: subject = law AND dictionaries; date limit = 2000-2018; location limit = in library.
You will see, when you run this search, that many of the dictionaries are not in English. Some of them are exclusively in another language, while others are multilingual legal dictionaries, which provide translations of legal terms.
Tip: Even if you were a ______ (language) major in college, you might not know what a __________ word means when it is used in a legal context. It is also not a good idea to blindly trust Google Translate to get it right. If you want to be sure of its legal meaning, take the time to look it up in a legal dictionary.
While legal dictionaries are great for basic definitions, what if you need just a little bit more information — maybe not as long as a book or an article, but just a few more paragraphs to provide additional context? This is the role that legal encyclopedias were created to fill.
Two well-known American legal encyclopedias are American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum. The law library has both of these encyclopedia sets in print in the main reading room; however, they have not been updated in a few years. Fully updated versions of both are available electronically through Westlaw.
Legal encyclopedias can focus on a narrow area of law, or be quite broad. They are published in many jurisdictions and languages. Some are multidisciplinary, such as the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law, which is available in the Harvard Divinity School Library’s reference collection.
To view a list of the more than 200 legal encyclopedias in the Harvard libraries’ collections that have been published since 2000, run this HOLLIS search: subject = law AND encyclopedias, date limit = 2000-2018; location limit = in library.
Finally, a little story. Right before I quit my former job to go to law school, the lawyer I worked for gave me a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary as a gift. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. Now, however, I see the thoughtfulness of that choice. He knew how important words are to lawyers, and that we must have the tools we need to make sure we’re using those words correctly.