Book Review – Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions

Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions, by James E. Clapp, Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Marc Galanter, and Fred R. Shapiro. Yale University Press, 2011, 368 pages. Hardcover, $45, ISBN 9780300172461.

Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions is a lively and entertaining book explaining the origin and usage history of almost 80 commonly used legal expressions – everything from “abuse excuse” to “black letter law” to “Star Chamber” to “the law is an ass.”  It is a fascinating look at how popular culture gives rise to new phrases that creep into the legal lexicon. The expressions are listed alphabetically with each expression receiving a several-pages treatment. This is a gem of a book for anyone interested in law or language and would make an excellent addition to any library collection. 

Lawtalk is well-documented and well-researched. Authors James E. Clapp, Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Marc Galanter, and Fred R. Shapiro each have experience in lexicography or in writing about legal language and culture. They are eminently qualified. Clapp, Thornburg, and Galanter are law professors. Shapiro, associate librarian and lecturer at Yale Law School, is well-known to law librarians as the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations and the author of The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations. He is also a compiler of the forthcoming The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. The four authors clearly relish their discussions of linguistic history, and Lawtalk yields a multitude of interesting and amusing tidbits.

“Paper chase” originated from an eighteenth century game in which one team chased another by following a trail of ripped pieces of paper. The phrase was popularized in legal circles only after the release in 1973 of the film by the same name. “Oyez,” the cry that when repeated announces the commencement of Supreme Court and other court proceedings, comes from a French dialect and literally means “Hear ye.” It is such an expected part of court proceedings that in 1984 a case was appealed (unsuccessfully) partially on the grounds that the words hadn’t been spoken, thus rendering the trial moot. Not all of the chapters explore such inoffensive histories. In pre-Revolutionary Virginia, slaves who didn’t testify to “the whole truth” had “both ears nailed to the pillory, and cut off,” along with receiving other punishments. “Comstockery” is the “prudish, self-righteous censorship based on a desire for sexual purity.” It resulted in campaigns to suppress classic works by George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman, as well as the selective banning of medical school anatomy textbooks. 

The sources of the expressions are as varied as the expressions themselves and include Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, Dr. Seuss, and Thomas Jefferson. A sense of the awesome power of language is present throughout the book; for example, the term “shyster” is now considered so derogatory that writing it to describe a lawyer is libelous per se. Several of the chapters include amusing sidebars reflecting the core concept of the phrase being discussed. Many of these consist of “lawyer” jokes that never get old (see “dying wish,” “Philadelphia lawyer,” “billable hour”). Other chapters are enhanced with historical illustrations or other visuals. The book ends with extensive notes and a helpful index.

Donna M. Fisher is law librarian at Senniger Powers LLP, St. Louis, Missouri.

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