List of Legal Dictionaries

List of Legal Dictionaries

Prescription Dictionaries vs. Description Dictionaries

In the introduction to A Dictionary of Statutory Interpretation, his author, William D. Popkin, explained that there is a “major dispute about dictionaries … whether the dictionary should be descriptive or prescriptive. This debate is well known in the context of ordinary
dictionaries, where the dispute is over whether to be relatively tolerant about
what entries to include (the descriptive approach), or to purge unacceptable
definitions and/or attach critical usage labels (the prescriptive approach).

The issue is as old as Samuel Johnson (in the 18th Century), who tilted toward the
prescriptive in order to slow down the pace of linguistic change”.

According to Johnson, “Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggle for our language.” (1)

“The descriptive vs. prescriptive dispute -follows the author of “A Dictionary of Statutory Interpretation”- was later taken up in connection with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) by Trench, who tilted toward the descriptive. Trench argued that the lexicographer “is an historian of [the language], not a critic” (Trench, p. 5).”

The dispute appeared later (1961) in the United States thanks to the publication of the Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, reference that “included many words without (in the view of many) attaching appropriately derogatory labels.8Webster’s Third dis

continued the “colloquial” label, used the “slang” label less often, and adopted the mildly disapproving labels “substandard” and (less often) “nonstandard” (Morton, pp. 135-38). The Explanatory Notes at the front of Webster’s Third had a somewhat “in your face” tone, explaining that the “substandard” label referred to a “status conforming to a pattern of linguistic usage that exists throughout the American language community but differs in choice of word

or form from that of the ‘prestige group’ in that community,” a characterization, which suggested that snobbery rather than good linguistic judgment favored a particular usage. As for slang, the Notes say that “[t]here is no completely satisfactory objective test for slang, especially in application to a word out of context.” (Webster’s Third, Explanatory Notes, sec.).

The 1969 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) took a different approach from Webster’s Third (Bishop, AHD, pp. vi, xxi-xxiii & p. 692). It adopted the perspective of the “educated adult,” although it cautiously straddled the descriptive vs. prescriptive debate. An introductory essay called “Good Usage, Bad Usage, and Usage” eschewed any appeal to authority such as the King’s English (referring to 16th Century England)
or the authority of the French Academy (traceable to 1635), and acknowledged actual usage as the principal guide.

Nonetheless, the essay noted that the AHD properly rejected “the ‘scientific’ delusion that a dictionary should contain no value judgments,” explaining that the AHD lexicographers relied on a usage panel of about one hundred people as “enlightened members of the community” to determine “cultivated usage.” The panel also drafted usage notes for some AHD entries-for example, “irregardless” was not merely labeled nonstandard, as Webster’s Third had also done (Webster’s Third, Explanatory Notes, sec. 8.2.3, p.19a), but was further described as “never acceptable except when the intent is clearly humorous.”

In the opinion of William D. Popkin, contemporary law dictionaries “are primarily descriptive word-books that do not deal adequately” with some legal fields, like statutory interpretation. He say that the Black’s Law Dictionary and the Ballentine’s Law Dictionary are of short value in some cases, they “provide little help in understanding the complex issues underlying … definitions”. He believes that the “shortcomings of Black’s and Ballentine’s Dictionaries are apparent when compared to the more complete entry in Arthur Leff ‘s legal dictionary
for “Canons of construction” (see the Arthur Leff definition in the law dictionary) and “Canons of construction in American law), which is both more descriptive and unabashedly

The fundamental problem -he says- with contemporary legal dictionaries is, as Mellinkoff explains, their lack of “any consistent sense of purpose” (Mellinkoff, Myth, p. 437), which led him to advocate and later to write a Dictionary of American Legal Usage. His Dictionary would expose “the swarming imprecisions of the law [which] give only an illusion of precision,”
although he specifically opted for “a word dictionary, not a short legal encyclopedia.” (Mellinkoff ‘s Dictionary of American Legal Usage, p. viii (1992))

Other Dictionaries

  • Black’s Law Dictionary, by Henry Campbell Black
  • Bouvier’s Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia (8th ed., 3rd rev.) by John Bouvier (1914)
  • Historical Dictionary of International Tribunals (1994)
  • Quote It II: A Dictionary of Memorable Legal Quotations compiled by Eugene C. Gerhart (1988)
  • International Law: A Dictionary (2005)
  • Dictionary of International and Comparative Law (2003)
  • Cowel’s Interpreter by John Cowel (1684)
  • Dictionary of Intellectual Property (1954)
  • Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (2004)
  • Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations and Acronyms
  • Trinxet Dictionary of Selected Legal Terms
  • Trinxet Reverse Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations and Acronyms
  • Legal Definitions in Historical Dictionaries
  • Dictionary of International & Comparative Law (2003)
  • Dictionary of Law, consisting of Judicial Definitions and Explanations of Words, Phrases, and Maxims, and an Exposition of the Principles of Law (1996)
  • Dictionary of Legal Quotations; or, Selected Dicta of English Chancellors and Judges from the Earliest Periods to the Present Time (1904)
  • English Dictionary: Explaining the Difficult Terms That Are Used in Divinity, Husbandry, Physick,
  • Phylosophy, Law, Navigation, Mathematicks, and Other Arts and Sciences (1676)
  • Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases Judicially Interpreted (1890)
  • Law in Shakespeare (1883)

See Also


1. Quotation from Johnson’s Preface, cited in Bishop, Good Usage, Bad Usage, and
Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, p. xxii (1969) (hereafter
“Bishop, AHD” ).

References and Further Reading

  • Richard C. Trench, On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, pp. 60-61 (1857) (published in Transactions of the Philological Society (1857)).
  • Mellinkoff, The Myth of Precision and the Law Dictionary, 31 UCLA L.Rev. 423, 430 (1983).
  • Frederick Hicks, Materials and Methods of Legal Research, p. 253 (Third Revised Edition 1942).
  • Herbert C. Morton, The Story of Webster’s Third, pp. 60-61, 66 (1994).

About the Author/s and Reviewer/s

Author: international

Mentioned in these Entries

A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, A Selection of Legal Maxims, Bouvier’s Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia, 1914, Dictionary of International and Comparative Law, Historical Dictionary of International Tribunals, International Law: A Dictionary, John Bouvier, Law Dictionaries, Legal Abbreviations and Acronyms, Legal Abbreviations, Historical, List of Legal Encyclopedias, Maxims of Law, Mozley and Whiteley’s Law Dictionary, Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law.



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