English, malleable language that it is, can be tedious and frustrating to learn. The grammar is flexible, the spelling fluctuates regularly, and many individual words have been wholesale robbed from other languages. James Nicoll was not far off when he said “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”
Given this approach, English has evolved significantly over time. Words like ‘defenestrate’ (French), ‘skipper’ (Dutch), and ‘zero’ (Arabic) are all actually foreign words that have been adopted as English.
Languages also change incrementally, with individual words and phrases gaining and losing meaning through daily use. ‘Twittering’ and ‘scrolling’ meant something entirely different in the 1800’s, and if you ‘had Bluetooth’ 30 years ago, chances are high that friends and family would have referred you to an emergency dentist.
Lawyers rely on Latin specifically because it is a dead language. Latin words no longer change through daily use, meaning they can be relied on to consistently communicate a single concept. Even as the colloquial words of English shift and grow, Latin remains steadfast and dependable.
With so much change happening all the time, it is likely that even most lawyers are unaware that many of the terms they use are pilfered Latin words. Legalese is not always explicitly Latin, so here are a few Latin terms you probably didn’t even realize weren’t pure English. They are provided per proxima amici, on an entirely pro bono public basis:
This term translates directly as ‘he has sworn’. One of the most commonly used legal documents, an affidavit is exactly as it sounds; a sworn statement to the court. Affidavits can come from anyone, but are commonly used to describe a set of facts, substantiate evidence, or relate a person’s story to the court.
Reminiscent of Freud and his many varied egos, an alter ego translates as ‘a second identity, living within a person’. In corporate law, an alter ego can also mean a corporation, organization, or similar legal entity that is used as a shield for the individual(s) controlling the corporate entity.
Despite its regular use, this term is commonly mispronounced as ‘bah-nah-fyd’. (It is correctly pronounced in Latin as ‘boh-nah-fee-deh’.) The phrase is used to indicate an action taken sincerely and with good intentions, regardless of the final outcome.
A caveat is commonly used in English to indicate a qualification, limit, or requirement to a previous and primary statement. That use makes sense, as the original term in Latin translates directly as ‘may he beware’. On its own, caveat does not sound terribly foreign or exotic. However, once it is placed in the context of caveat emptor (buyer beware!), its Latin roots and legal use seem much more obvious.
Right next to ‘thus’, this may be the most common Latin term abused by aspiring academics everywhere. Ergo translates most directly as ‘therefore’.
Et al. and Etcetera
The term et al. is actually just an abbreviation of et alii, which is Latin for ‘and others’. It appears to be only technically different from its associate etcetera, which translates as ‘and other things’.
It turns out your grade school teacher was not using a misspelled shorthand for ‘example’ all those years ago just to frustrate you in your youth. Eg. actually stands for exempli gratia, meaning ‘for the sake of example’.
No, not the car; although there are some interesting parallels to be made there. Fiat translates as ‘let it be done’, and is used in English today for warrants issued by a judge for a legal proceeding.
i.e. (id est)
Not to be confused with eg. or ex., i.e. stands for id est, which translates as ‘that is’. It is technically only used to restate something that may or may not have been clear, and does not stand for ‘illustrative example’.
An innuendo is an intimation concerning someone or something, typically made indirectly, and only vaguely suggesting whatever is being implied. It seems highly appropriate then that innuendo in Latin means ‘by nodding’.
Last but not least, ‘veto’ seems to be the most durable and consistent in meaning even after its translation. Veto translates directly as ‘I forbid’, and is used today the same way it was used originally in Rome. A veto is still the power of an executive to prevent an action, most typically in the context of vetoing a piece of legislation.
If you, a friend, or a loved one are having difficulty understanding the legalese in a document you’re faced with, we welcome you to contact DBH Law for assistance interpreting the challenge at hand.