Are Words and Phrases Judicial Definition Sources Still Required?

I once dreamt of a career in etymology. I find the concept of where words originate and thus their linguistic application is very interesting. This character trait may have been the cause for the in-drawn breath when I read the Hello Words and Phrases Online, Goodbye Words and Phrases in All Formats post on the Law Librarian Blog today.

It’s been decades since I’ve had any real need for the title. I doubt Word and Phrases is needed in either print or digital except as an instructional device to teach online searching…

With full-text searching online Words and Phrases is a relic. In the print-only days, the research tool was an editorial attempt to provide what good pinpoint online searching can now do; it was great and useful product once upon a time.

I respectfully disagree with the Law Librarian Blog on this issue. I find myself referring researchers to judicial definition sources frequently. Westlaw Canada’s Words and Phrases search template, Lexis Nexis Quicklaw’s Canadian Legal Words and Phrases, and Maritime Law Books Judicially Defined Words search template are all frequently used sources in our law firm environment. Gary has great post here at Slaw comparing the services.

Perhaps the usefulness of these sources is best felt by the legal practitioner who is trying to do the best work of gathering the most relevant material in the shortest amount of time. Do you still use words and phrases sources?


  1. I’m not a lawyer, but I work in a law library and definitely use W&P tools all the time.

    I often refer law students to the templates on Westlaw. You should see their eyes light up when they realise such a tool exists – they’ve usually just spent an hour typing the word or phrase into a general search box and are pulling their hair out because they’re getting hundreds of results but not finding any actual interpretation.

    The editorial consideration that goes into a W&P tool is extremely valuable. I think we would all be at a huge loss if they were no longer published.

  2. Soon after the launch of Words and Phrases on LexisNexis Quicklaw, I was advised by our systems staff that it was one of the most used search templates on the service. Customer demand subsequently led to Words and Phrases being added to Westlaw Canada.

    The author of the comments describing the new words and phrases product on Westlaw as a “relic” needs a reality check. The resource consisting of 1 million terms including many never before made available online sounds to me like a significant development. There are of course those who consider me to be a relic – I may be a bit prejudiced in that regard.

  3. I have found practitioners do need this tool: when you are drafting an agreement, the difference of a word can mean so much! Precision is key. Having a quick tool to determine how the courts have interpreted the meaning makes the whole research process so much easier. If the publishers had not done this already I expect the law firms’ knowledge management departments would have invented it by now.

  4. I use them all the time now with a preference for the Westlaw Canada product. I tend to use print less. Not sure, however, that Thomson needs to maintain both Sanagan and their blue Words and Phrases set in print; seems kind of redundant to have two similar products.

    For point of clarification: there was a huge Words and Phrases (West US) publication that covered a whole row of shelves at the Bora Laskin, kept up-to-date by pocket parts. However, there never was (to my knowledge) a direct online equivalent until the recent announcement referenced in the post above. Prior to a US database to search Words and Phrases on Westlaw US meant choosing “Words and Phrases” as a segment/field in whatever case law or legislative database you were in.

  5. Words and Phrases (and dictionaries) are our most used resources in my library, and they are used by all practice groups. It is one of the first resources I impress upon our students. I collect as many as I can.

  6. As I have said publicly on more than one occasion, the Words and Phrases part of the Canadian Abridgement is one of the most useful tools we have for issues where the applicable legal category is not easily retrieved, and one needs some Swan-like serendipity.

    I use the huge West publication, especially in dealing with statutory terms.

    And don’t overlook the All ER Words and Phrases references, but it’s not anything like as well done as the Abridgement.