Latin and The Law

[This is a repost from the old Camberwell House blog, December 1, 2009.]

There was a time when reading law was an exercise in plowing through the classical educations of the British lawyers of a different era, a kind of penance paid by the rest of us for the sins of the teachers of countless generations of public school boys vigorously beaten into translations of the classics. Such educations produced a weird result where anything important had to be in Latin because, well, Latin was how educated people said important things and that was that. It also helped that such a forest of Latin stood as a code or in-language for the ruling classes which often excluded the entrepreneurial middle classes and definitely placed a comprehension barrier between the lower classes and their understanding of the net of laws that so severely and unfairly bound them. It’s still surprising to realize that the study of English among Britain’s educated classes was, until well into the 20th Century, often reserved for those children of privilege considered too slow for Latin and Greek. How idiotic such a fetishization of past millenia was is shown by the fact that Winston Churchill was shunted off into the study of English at Harrow because he was considered too dim for the classics. (The lad was once beaten when, told that a certain sentence construction would be used when addressing a table, blurted out, “but I never do!”. Fortunately this early immersion in English eventually turned out to be for our societal benefit.)

Over the years Latin has, thankfully, largely dropped from frequent use in the law. Generations of lawyers have grown up without ever having picked up a Latin primer and I have a sneaking suspicion that the drop in the study of the classics is linked at least in important part to the end of corporal punishment in the schools: kids — me, for one! — probably have to be threatened with violence to waste time learning the endless, oppressive complexities of Latin grammar, an educational point recognized by the lads of Monty Python in this classic Life of Brian scene.

Reading a judicial decision from eighty years ago is an exercise in frustration, blocked as one is at every turn by a barbed wire tangle of Latin phrases which have perfectly acceptable English equivalents. Modern decisions are mercifully free of Latin, save where the term in question has become a term of art which is generally and instantly understood by lawyers to denote a specific thing, a word or phrase which one treats as an English word by adoption, like (non-legal) but instantly-comprehended words “blitzkreig”, “bungalow” or “fait accompli”. The law is better off for it.

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