The Friday Fillip

From last week’s leet to Latin this week, the language of law’s tags and maxims. Wikipedia again does it right, having a fine set of articles on Latin from various angles. The full list of Latin phrases is a good place to start. From a bene placito“from one who has been pleased well” Or “at will”, “at one’s pleasure”. This phrase, and its Italian derivative beneplacito, are synonymous with the more common ad libitum (“at pleasure”). to vox populi“voice of the people”, with a hundred or so phrases in between, there’s plenty here to amuse and arm yourself for that boring conversation at the cocktail party.

[“Ah, yes, that was the White Album, wasn’t it? Ubi sunt“Where are they [now]?”, I ask you.” / “Oh, terribly sorry. That’s your drink is it? Let me offer you my quaere clausum fregitclausum fregit: An action of tresspass; thus called, by reason the writ demands the person summoned to answer to quare clausum fregit, i.e. why he committed such a trespass..” / “I’ll just slip away for a sec, if I might. But I shall return, I promise. Dictum meum pactum“my word [is] my bond” Motto of the London Stock Exchange.” ]

Unless you took Latin, there’s bound to be a bunch of phrases you read and gloss over, taking the meaning from the context but never being quite sure. Sapere aude“dare to be wise”, I say, and learn a tag a day. The encounter with Latin will be especially true for us in law, where tags in that language are rife: res ipsa loquitur, cur. ad vult, non est factum, duces tecum… Wikipedia has pulled out those Latin phrases that relate to law into a separate list that’s pretty good, though lacking a term here and there. Of course, there are those who would tackle the problem by abolishing Latin in law altogether: There’s a funny piece, by the way, that was originally published in the Guardian concerning the UK effort to simplify legal language.

This said, I shall now adopt the second half of the advice once purportedly given by the Duke of Welllington to a new MP: “Don’t quote Latin. Say what you have to say and then sit down.” Sedeo.


  1. Although the legal maximums are now considered of limited use, they do have an interesting history, and many have amazingly survived. The best historical account of legal maxims and their role in law and legal education, I think, is in AWB Simpson’s article “The Rise and Fall of the Legal Treatise: Legal Principles and the Forms of Legal Literature” 48 U Chi. L. Rev. 632 (1081). Simpson is a well known legal historian with titles such as “Cannibalism and the Common Law” and “Leading Cases in the Common Law”, all great reads.

    Simpson staties at 650-651 that the “decline in popularity of this form of literature is partly explicable in terms of the rise of the treatise, which expounded the law in a way more coherent than was possible by any rearranged scheme of maxims”.

    The Simpson article is an excellent insight into some of the comtemporary issues around digital information in law and search engines such as google.