The Evolution of Black’s Law Dictionary

May 14, 2014

blacks law dictionary tenthOver a century, Black’s Law Dictionary has been the leading standard for lawyers and anyone else needing to understand the intricacies of the legal word.

Bryan Garner, the globe’s foremost legal lexicographer, signed off on the 10th Edition Friday, May 9. The latest edition is said to be the most authoritative, comprehensive legal dictionary every published.  Containing over 50,000 terms, the edition includes 7,500 new terms not seen before. Along with the new terms are over 16,000 updated definitions and an expanded bibliography containing twice as many sources.

Sometimes, for laymen, the dictionary can be vague. Think about the difference between the title, “Lawyer” and “Attorney at Law.” Aren’t they the same?

A look at Black’s says a lawyer is, “a person learned in the law; as an attorney, counsel or solicitor; a person who is practicing law.” There, it uses the word attorney to define lawyer. But the difference still isn’t clear.

Arkady Bukh, Partner with Bukh Law Firm in New York City explained the conundrum this way:

A layman may be appointed to be your attorney (i.e. given “power of attorney”) to act in some or all matters pertaining to you, but may not practice law, or hold themself out to the public to practice law. To do this they would need to be an “Attorney at Law” or a “Lawyer”.

Sounds clearer. But what about that phrase tacked onto the end, “at Law?” Bukh explains:

“…the prepositional phrase ‘at Law’, the basic law of the United States remains English Common Law, especially as it existed at the time of the Revolution. The prepositional phrases “at law” or “in law” is an echo of this,” says Bukh.

Founded by Henry Campbell Black, the publication is the go-to source for definitions in both legal briefs and court opinions. The book has proven its lasting value and has been cited as a secondary legal authority in many cases heard by the United States Supreme Court.

Black’s Law Dictionary blasted into the public’s consciousness in a big way on May 28, 2003 when the website, 100777, reported that Sarah Black Medhurst held a press conference at the Black family estate and claimed that the famous dictionary was originally written as a joke by her great-grandfather.

Medhurst claimed that the Black family had knowingly perpetuated the hoax for a century and worked together to create content for the expanding manual.

The freshman edition was published in 1891 with sophomore version coming out in 1910. Until the sixth edition, the book also provided case citations for each term used. Some attorneys found these citations to be the books most useful feature and used it as a starting point in building cases.

The citations were dropped in the seventh edition which came out in 1999. The arrival of the internet made legal research easy and the citations were no longer seen as valuable.

The eighth edition introduced cross-referencing to legal encyclopedias and the ninth edition, published in 2009, kept this feature.

As much of “legalese” comes from Latin, the dictionary provides a guide for pronouncing these terms. The entries also provide pronunciation similar to those found among North American lawyers and doctors.

Some of the new terms added to the 10th edition include

Affluenza defense: A legal defense, usually not recognized, that an offender who happens to be a minor, cannot be held accountable or responsible for criminal acts because of being raised in a wealth environment.

Benchslap: The sharp rebuke of an attorney or litigant by a judge.

Gazump: The improper sale of a house or dwelling.

Legaldegook: Unnecessarily complicated legal language, usually of the deliberately obscure type. Found in poor legal writing and bad statutes usually prepared by writers whose goal seems to be the production of anything other than clear and easy communication.

Mommy track: The career path that allows a mother to meed less stringent performance requirements in exchange for having a more limited salary and less opportunity for advancing in the company.

Psephology: The study of how people vote.

Unperson: An individual who is extremely marginalized.

According to 100777, Sarah Medhurst claimed that Henry Campbell Black had never imagined that his work would eventually become the go-to source for legal definitions. “My great granddad had written the text for an upcoming skit night at his law firm,” Medhurst explained. “It was his way of showing how pompous the legal profession had become.”

Surprisingly, the dictionary became a hit while Black’s efforts at humor were largely unnoticed. When money started rolling in with requests to purchase the book, Black left humor and started, what proved to be, a lucrative career in legal publishing.