Legal Dictionary

Legal Dictionary

“When [legal professionals] look up a word in a dictionary and they often do they are as likely
as not to select a poor dictionary.”
– Max Radin (“A Juster Justice, a More Lawful Law,” )

What Is a Legal Dictionary?

A legal dictionary provides the legal definition of a word or term. Researchers use a legal dictionary when they do not understand the legal meaning of a word or term.

About Dictionaries and Legal Research

When the reader want to know the definitions of a legal term, a legal dictionary is the right tool for the legal researcher. A legal Dictionary is designed to provide easy reference to vocabulary commonly used in the legal community.

In legal research, legal dictionaries may serve several functions. Besides than providing with definitions of words, a legal dictionary can also be useful, by providing synonyms, in developing a legal research strategy, since the researcher has at his dispossal more legal terms to start the research task. In addition, legal dictionaries in most cases provide citations to cases which may define the term. In relation to legal citations, Words and Phrases are usually a superior and more extensive reference work.

A legal thesaurus serves similar purposes (specially providing synonyms) to that of a dictionary, but does not explain the meaning of the legal term and definitively does not contains citations.

Good Historical Legal Dictionaries

According to Scalia and Garner (Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, West 2012), the following list of dictionaries are “the most useful and authoritative for the English language … for law”, and they offered the following list:

  • 1771: Timothy Cunningham, A New and Complete Law Dictionary, 2 vols. (2d ed. 1771; 3d ed. 1783)
  • 1772: Giles Jacob, A New Law Dictionary (9th ed. 1772; 10th ed. 1782)
  • 1792: Richard Burn, A New Law Dictionary, 2 vols.
  • 1797-1798: William Marriot, A New Law Dictionary, 4 vols. (Marriot’s work was not a new dictionary, but only a new edition or updating of Cunningham)
  • 1803: Thomas Potts, A Compendious Law Dictionary
  • 1816: Thomas Walter Williams, A Compendious and Comprehensive Law Dictionary
  • 1829: James Whishaw, A New Law Dictionary
  • 1835: Thomas Edlyne Tomlins, The Law-Dictionary, 2 vols. (also in 1809 and 1820 editions)
  • 1839: John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary, 2 vols. (1st ed.)
  • 1847: Henry James Holthouse, A New Law Dictionary (Henry Penington ed., Am. ed.)
  • 1850: Alexander M. Burrill, A New Law Dictionary and Glossary
  • 1859: Alexander M. Burrill, A Law Dictionary and Glossary (2d ed.)
  • 1860: J.J.S. Wharton, Law Lexicon, or Dictionary of Jurisprudence (2d Am. ed.)
  • 1879: Benjamin Vaughn Abbott, Dictionary of Terms and Phrases Used in American or English Jurisprudence, 2 vols.
  • 1883: John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary, 2 vols. (15th ed.)
  • 1883: Stewart Rapalje & Robert L. Lawrence, A Dictionary of American and English Law, 2 vols.
  • 1890: William C. Anderson, A Dictionary of Law
  • 1891: Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law
  • 1893: J. Kendrick Kinney, A Law Dictionary and Glossary
  • 1901: Walter A. Shumaker & George Foster Longsdorf, The Cyclopedic Dictionary of Law
  • 1910: Henry Campbell Black, A Law Dictionary, (2d ed. 1910; 3d ed. [retitled Black’s Law Dictionary] 1933)
  • 1911: J.J.S. Wharton, Wharton’s Law Lexicon (W.H. Aggs ed., 11th ed.)
  • 1914: Last revision of Century Dictionary (12 vols.), one of the most reliable sources for historical terms.
  • 1919: Benjamin W. Pope, Legal Definitions, 2 vols.
  • 1940: Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (William Edward Baldwin ed.) (or other editions during the period)
  • 1969: James A. Ballentine, Ballentine’s Law Dictionary (William S. Anderson ed., 3d ed.)
  • 1970: Max Radin, Law Dictionary (Lawrence G. Greene ed., 2d ed.)
  • 1990: Black’s Law Dictionary (4th ed. 1951; 5th ed. 1981; 6th ed. 1990; 7th ed. 1999)
  • 1995: Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2d ed.)
  • 1996: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law
  • 2000: Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary (6th ed.), a three volume british text.

Print Law Dictionaries

Peter Sandrini demonstrates the inadequacy of print (paper) law dictionaries to give an adequate portrait of legal terminology. These shortcomings result both from the very nature of terminology in general with its emphasis on the centrality of the concept, on the interrelatedness of concepts and on the principle of univocity, and also from the specific culture/system-bound character of legal terminology. Print dictionaries propose equivalence where terminology rejects such a relationship, seeking instead to compare and contrast concepts in different legal systems. Traditional paper electronic dictionaries provide multiple equivalents whereas terminology theory holds that each concept should be designated by a single term. The author sets out the information requirements (including the hierarchy of concepts, the relationship between concepts, legal classification and so on), a multitude of data and cross-references that can only truly be represented electronically.

The death-knell for print legal dictionaries is also sounded by Sandro Nielsen. He examines how online legal dictionaries can be improved drawing on experience gained in an on-going lexicographical project at the Department of Business communication, aarhus University, Denmark, which combines two monolingual and two bilingual dictionaries for the language pair Danish and english in a tool containing a database, search engine and online dictionary. This dictionary takes account of the specific functions of dictionaries (communicative and cognitive) and matches them with the needs of users. This approach caters for both the encoding and decoding needs of users. A variety of search options including ‘help to understand a term’, ‘help to find a term where the meaning is known’, ‘help to translate a term’, ‘help to translate a collocation or phrase’ allow for a final multifunctional product that escapes the constraints of traditional print dictionaries.

Early Legal Dictionaries in the United States

In the words of the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas School of Law):

“Dictionaries unique to the jurisprudence of the United States arrived relatively late. For the hundreds of years following the initial colonization of the British Colonial North America, the dictionaries lawyers and jurists turned to were those of England. The first legal dictionary published in the United States was a New York 1811 reprint of a late edition of the law dictionary of Giles Jacob published in 1809 in England. This and other reprints of English law in the United States would often contain notes for US lawyers, but they were fundamentally English works. Legal literature in the United States really dates from the decades of the 1820s and 1830s with the publications of work by James Kent, Nathan Dane, and Joseph Storey, among others. However, it was not until 1839 that the United States was to have a law dictionary of its own.

Examination of the contents of the founding fathers’ libraries – as much as is known – reveals that if one was to have an English law dictionary in the eighteenth century, it was likely to be that by Giles Jacob (“A New Law Dictionary”). The two other most commonly held legal dictionaries were that of Timothy Cunningham (“A New and Complete Law-Dictionary, or, General Abridgement of the Law”), and Malachy Postlethwayt’s translation of the commercial dictionary by Jacques Savary des Brûlons (“Dictionnaire universel de commerce: contenant tout ce qui concerne le commerce qui se fait dans les quatre parties du monde”). The 1743 edition of Jacob’s law dictionary was included in John Adams’ library.

Tools of Defining Words

These are the tenets of defining words outlined by Landau (1971) and applied to legal terms:

  • Make the definition substitutable for the word in context, so that the entry begins with the definition itself – never with a phrase such as ‘a term meaning’ or ‘a term referring to’.
  • Indicate every meaning of the headword in the field covered by the dictionary.
  • Don’t define self-explanatory phrases that aren’t legitimate lexical units (including such phrases as living with husband).
  • Define singular terms, not plurals, unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise.
  • Distinguish between definitions and encyclopaedic information (that is, textbook descriptions).


See Also

  • Pocket Spanish English Legal Dictionary
  • Semantic Indexing and Law Dictionary
  • Bilingual Legal Dictionary
  • International Law: A Dictionary
  • Google Synonym or Semantic Operator and Law
  • Bouvier’s Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia, 1914
  • Mozley and Whiteley’s Law Dictionary
  • Dictionary of International and Comparative Law
  • Law Dictionaries
  • Legal Lexicography
  • Legal Information Institute resources
  • Legal topics
  • Legal research: resources for libraries
  • Legal research: Law of Libraries and Archives
  • Legal subjects
  • Legal encyclopedias
  • Legal Treatises
  • Legal Information Institute (LII)
  • Legal Trac

References and Further Reading

About the Author/s and Reviewer/s

Author: international

Mentioned in these Entries

Bouvier’s Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia, 1914, Historical Dictionary of International Tribunals, International commercial arbitration, John Bouvier, Law Dictionaries, Law global results of the 200 top searches in Google 2, Law global results of the 200 top searches in Google, List of Australian Reports, List of law keywords by competence in Google adwords, List of top law keywords in Google by global searches, Mozley and Whiteley’s Law Dictionary, Osborn’s Concise Law Dictionary, Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, Top 250 law keywords in Google by search, Top U.S. google searches for attorneys, legal, lawyer and law, Top global google searches for attorneys, legal, lawyer and law.



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