Leff Dictionary of Law


The Leff Dictionary of Law

The Leff Dictionary of Law, authored by Arthur A. Leff, was published in part by the Yale Law Journal in 1985. Arthur Leff was writing a legal dictionary at the time of his death.

Book Review

Even from the small samples we had tasted it was clear that the Leff dictionary would have set a very different standard of erudition, scope, and style from that prevailing among law dictionaries now in use. The publication in this issue of the Journal of the sections which Arthur had finished at his death is, thus, a scholarly event of some significance. It is something of a challenge, as well. For we can now see what a great dictionary would have looked like.

It is, of course, true that a part of a dictionary is of limited reference use. Arthur would have been amused, I think, at publication of A, B, and C. He, better than anyone, knew the scarred seamlessness of language.
But he also could appreciate almost every conceivable genre of amusement and instruction. And it is for us to decide that what follows, in more or less dictionary form, does, indeed, teach us and amuse.

Arthur intended, when he began the dictionary, to write several hundred mini-essays, and to include these among the thousands of other entries.

The essays might be on any word that caught his fancy, though many were to be on words that had become important in law or legal scholarship over the past two or three decades. There are many such short essays included here. Some, like “bureaucracy,” “black-box theory,” and
“behaviorism,” entail a characteristic reaching out to cannibalize other fields for the work of law. “Law itself,” he wrote, “at least when seen as prescriptive command, is itself based upon black-box theories of behavior.”

Not all the short essays reach to other disciplines nor are they predominantly novelties in a legal dictionary. Some, like “bill of exchange,” are superbly transparent windows upon the simple and homey needs that generated complex and technical institutions. A story is often better than a formal definition. In “bill of exchange” we get such a story.

There are cautions. But, characteristically, Arthur had expressed them as bemused, almost tentative explorations. Under “boilerplate” we find some thoughts on the ethics of the craft of lawyering and the part the word processor might play.” (1)

“They speak also of the taste and fidelity of the editors of the Yale Law Journal, who have determined that nothing from so wonderful a man and mind should be lost.

The entries are generally straightforward and spare, like those in Johnson’s Dictionary, for Arthur (like Johnson) had a sense of genre, and an honesty that would have prevented his even so much as thinking of offering to the world a “Law Dictionary” that in prominent part was an alphabetized array of his own particular views, much less his sallies of wit.

In his principal role as lexicographer, Arthur Leff himself most often shows through in perspicuous compressions of concepts less well and more wordily expressed elsewhere; look, for example, s. vv. “caeteris paribus,”and “borough.”Visible also is his range in time-from the quaintnesses of
“boothagium”and “bona felonum,”through “body-snatching”and “borborough reeves,”down to “boosted fire,””book depreciation”and “boilerplate.”

The work, had Arthur been allowed to finish it, would have been the visible sign of a mind to which nothing in law or about law was alien.

If the presently printed beginning has a fault, it is the small fault -overinclusiveness- that in real life almost always accompanies the great virtue of seeking the outer boundaries of one’s own subject-in Arthur’s case, all of law. We cannot in the nature of things know whether, in the final
preparation of the manuscript, he might have struck out some entry, or have set out more fully its legal connections. But this uncertainty in no way shakes the solidity of the corpus.

There are, to be sure, some “sallies of wit.” If that most serious of men, Samuel Johnson found these not wholly repressible in his great Dictionary, such stern and total self-denial cannot be expected of Arthur.

But I will let readers discover these for themselves; I think Arthur would have preferred that. (I wonder what Arthur thought of Johnson’s “definition” of a dictionary-maker as a “harmless drudge”; since he did not reach the letter “D,” much less the letter “L”-for “legal dictionary” and
“lexicographer”-we cannot know. I hazard the unprovable conjecture that he would have made something of it, but one who knows the resources of Arthur’s wit would never try to guess what that would have been.)

It is my belief that, whether or not Arthur consciously realized it, the compiling of this Dictionary, apart from the intrinsic utility and other merits the book would have possessed, would have been seen, had Arthur lived on, as having been the firm foundation for a range of knowledge, about the concretenesses of law, scarcely to be matched in any mind, present
or past, that was at the same time so philosophical and creative.

What a palette he was assembling! (2)

About the Author of the Dictionary

Arthur A. Leff taught contracts, evidence and ethics to scores of students at the Yale Law School between 1968 and 1981, when died of cancer at 46 years old.

Harry H. Wellington, dean of the Law School, said: ”Mr. Leff’s insights in contracts and commercial law and jurisprudence, I think, helped a whole generation of scholars working in those disciplines better to understand the appropriate questions to ask. In addition to that, he was one of the best law teachers in America. Students adored him.” ‘Extraordinary Originality’

Grant Gilmore, a retired member of the faculty, recalled one of Mr. Leff’s early Law Review articles, ”Unconscionability and the Code – the Emperor’s New Clause.”

”It was both an extraordinary work of scholarship and a remarkably profound analysis of the deep currents in the law of contracts,” he said. ”He had extraordinary originality.”

Since that article was published in 1967, Mr. Leff wrote a score more. His book ”Swindling and Selling” was published in 1976.

”The pattern of contract law allocates to people risks that they undertake,” he said, ”and that makes it an even stronger argument that you let the loss fall where it falls.”

Mr. Leff was a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Amherst College and the Harvard Law School. Before joining the Yale faculty, he taught at Washington University Law School. (3)

“Arthur was truly a polymath, disinclined to specialize in any field of law. He was interested not only in contracts and commercial law, which he wrote about and taught brilliantly, but (for example) in torts (his wonderful “Selling and Swindling,” deceit), constitutional law, criminal law and even corporations. Thus, he was qualified to put together a law dictionary in the same way that Samuel Johnson was qualified to write a dictionary of the English language.

And, like Johnson, he could insert the occasional wry and witty definition which makes a dictionary not a frequent dry-as-dust reference work, but a thing that can be read for pleasure. No legal lexicographer save Arthur Leff would have included in his definition of the letter “B”, “another frequent participant in legal hypotheticals, victimization, as in ‘A hits B.’” (4)


  1. Cover, Robert M., “Arthur’s Words” (1985). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2707.
  2. Black, Charles L. Jr., “Arthur Leff and His Law Dictionary” (1985). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2530. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/2530
  3. New York Times, obituary.
  4. Bishop, Joseph, “Arthur Leff as Lexicographer” (1985). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2811.

See Also

Oran’s Dictionary of the Law
Wolters Kluwer Bouvier Law Dictionary
Penguin Dictionary of Law
Stimson’s Law dictionary
Concise Law Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Maxims
Mozley and Whiteley’s Law Dictionary
Osborn’s Concise Law Dictionary
International Law: A Dictionary
Dictionary of International and Comparative Law
Black’s Law Dictionary
Murdoch’s Dictionary of Irish Law



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