We lawyers are so often blamed for half the sins of the world. One of them is our language. There is a thought that we created words which only the lawyers would understand. Not so. But let me explain a few of the most common words we use.
Remember that all law is pretty much divided between civil and criminal cases. Criminal cases will show up on your TV. Civil cases are everything else, car wrecks, fights over land lines, bill collecting, etc.
In civil cases, the person bringing the case is called the plaintiff. I suppose, because they are complaining. The other party is called the defendant. We use the word defendant in both civil and criminal cases.
If you do go to court, you are likely to hear the word oyez cried out as court opens. Pronounced o yay it is used to command attention. It literally means hear ye.
The word sheriff is familiar to everyone. The office was originally called in England the shire-reeve. A shire is a Saxon word signifying a division made up of a large number of hundreds later called a county. As I’m sure you know, a hundred consisted of 10 tithings or group of 10 families of freeholders. Interestingly, the whole group was responsible for the crimes or defaults of any one member.
We do have a love for the Latin. Habeas Corpus translates to you have the body. It is a writ (order) to bring the named prisoner to court because the prisoner, it is alleged, is being restrained in violation of due process.
How about “I leave all my assets to my son and daughter, if alive at my death, if not to their issue?” It means all persons who have descended from a common ancestor, my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, if I ever get any, but not my son’s spouse or daughter’s husband, are all issue. Of course, I would want them to take per stirpes and not per capita. That means in a representative capacity, i.e., if my son had three children and my daughter had six, then the son’s three children would each share what he would have received, and the daughter’s children would share what she would have received. A per capita distribution would mean that all nine grandchildren get the same, 1⁄9 of my estate.
Then there are the French. They gave us words like mortgage, which literally means dead hand, indicating that when the debt is paid, the mortgage is no longer effective.
Multiplex et indistinctum parit confusionem; et quaestiones, quo simpliciores, eo lucidiores. Multiplicity and indistinctness produce confusion; and questions, the
more simple they are, the more lucid.
Thomas Young, a graduate of Pitt and Harvard Law School, has been a lawyer in Johnstown since 1958. He is a former professor of business law at Pitt-Johnstown. Readers may send questions to Young in care of The Tribune-Democrat. The opinions expressed in this column are general in nature and may not apply to your situation. Consult your attorney for advice on specific legal matters.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.