Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Words from law

(This article appeared in the Sept Lexpert and is an excerpt from my book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.)

Law terms have transcended the legal arena


Howard Richler

Some laypeople find the specialized vocabulary of law inaccessible, yet it has bequeathed everyday words to the hoi polloi. While one might not be surprised that a term such as entrust originated in the field of law where it means to “invest with a trust,” other terms that have transcended their legal confines are not so apparent. For example, the first OED definition of “devise” is “the act of devising, apportioning, or assigning, by will; a testamentary disposition of real property; the clause in a will conveying this.” The OED adds this quote from Sir F. Pollock's Land Laws (1887): “A gift by will of freehold land, or of such rights arising out of or connected with land as are by English law classed with it as real property, is called a devise. A gift by will of personal property is called a bequest.” The verb sense of devise meaning to contrive derived from its sense as a verb “to assign or give by will.”

There are many other words that escaped the legal matrix. Here are a few:


The first OED definition stemming from the 16th century is “Expectation or contemplation of law; the position of waiting for or being without a claimant or owner.” In the subsequent century it acquired a general sense of a state of temporary or permanent disuse.


We see this word used in the 14th century in the legal community to refer to an orphan who is a minor and therefore a ward of the state. The first citation of such is found in John Wycliffe's 1382 translation of the Bible where James 1:27 mentions this Christian duty: “To visite pupilles, that is, fadirles or modirles, or bothe, and widewes in her tribulacioun.” The current sense of a student being taught by a teacher developed in the 16th century.


If you establish a curfew for a teenager, you may be doing so to protect the young hellion from metaphorical burns. A curfew, however, was established originally not to avoid metaphorical fires but actual ones. In medieval Europe, many communities enacted a regulation whereby a bell was rung at a fixed hour in the evening signalling that street fires be extinguished, sometimes by covering the fire. This applied also to lights and was termed couvre feu, French for “cover fire.” This morphed almost immediately in English to “curfew,” and by the 13th century “curfew” merely designated the time the evening bell was rung. There were a myriad of spellings for the word including “curpheue,” and “corfu.” Only in the 20th century was the sense of curfew extended to refer to other restricted outdoor nocturnal activities. Punch magazine in 1939 stated, “The get a nine o'clock curfew imposed on members of the Women's Land Army in prevent them going out with soldiers.” How ironic that a French word should dampen passion!


This originated as a term in law to destroy or annihilate the force of evidence, and to quash, annul, and rebut. This sense was generalized in the 19th century to mean to pass over in silence or strike out. The word's most common sense nowadays is grammatical, i.e., to omit a vowel or syllable in pronunciations (e.g., pronouncing family, fam-lee) and this sense dates back to the late 18th century.


In the 14th century, “entail” meant to settle an estate into a “fee tail” (feudum talliatum in Latin) so that it passed on to the owner’s heirs, lest the possessor wanted to bequeath it to someone else. In the 16th century the sense was extended to include bestowing an estate and to something being attached. This was the meaning John Bunyan had in mind in The Holy City (circa 1665) when he writes, “His name was always so entailed to that doctrine.” It wasn't until the 19th century that it acquired its most common sense nowadays of involving or resulting in something inevitably.


This word originated as a legal term that meant belonging to compulsory feudal service, and derived from the 13th century word “ban,” meaning authoritative proclamation. Obviously, compulsory feudal service wasn't held in high regard because before long it acquired its modern senses of trite, commonplace and trivial.


This word was borrowed from the field of law. Its first definition from the early 16th in the OED is “Conveyance or transfer of an estate by will or lease.” The key to the change of meaning is the word “transfer.” Later in the century the transfer in question became the devolution of sovereignty that occurred with the death of a king. Hence by the 18th century demise became just another of the many euphemisms for “death.” Since the 20th century the word is often used to connote a failure of a business.

In the next issue, we will look yet more words that moved from a legal sphere to a general domain. This article is adapted from Howard Richler's recently released How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts published by Ronsdale Press. It is available both as a print and as an ebook.

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