For the Wordy and Law-Nerdy

law, nerd, english, legal english

My enthusiasm was unexpectedly piqued while studying for the Ontario bar exam. Yes, I know–call me a nerd. Most find the study material incredibly dry (which it certainly is), but I discovered something to keep me focused: vocabulary. What an extraordinary selection of words and phrases in there! The density of the material in its summarized form provide a fantastic overview of the legal vocabulary that many English-speaking, practicing lawyers take for granted. In the day-to-day, this vocab is just part of the job. One doesn’t really pay attention to how unique it is. But it is!

Studying for the bar and recognizing this unique quality reminded me why I started this blog Law&Language. In law, we use and rely upon such particular words and combinations of words. It really is unlike any other field. Think about the ratios and tests we highlight in cases, a fundamental part of the practice of common law. For example, in order for the Federal Court to stay a removal in the immigration context, the Applicant must meet the three-part test set out in Toth v Canada (Minister of Employment & Immigration) (1988), 6 Imm LR (2d) 123, 86 NR 302 (FCA):

  1. that there is a serious issue to be tried in the underlying application;
  2. that he/she would suffer irreparable harm if no order was granted and he/she was removed from Canada; and
  3. considering the situation of both parties, the balance of convenience favours granting the stay.

Here we have three short phrases (“serious issue,””irreparable harm,” “balance of convenience”) that are relied upon, defined, interpreted, and disputed in court on a daily basis. Those arguments deal with whether or not a factual example meets the definition of these phrases. Counsel twists and pulls and argues the facts to illustrate how they fit this test. Yet, at the end of the day, the test is simply a selection of words. Another example: “pith and substance.” This phrase, a test for the validity of a law, is entrenched in constitutional law. The words stand out in my mind when I reminisce of my first year days in ‘State and Citizen’ class.

The bar exam materials are full such examples. As an English teacher turned lawyer, I find it fascinating. And I imagine I’m not alone. Simple words can have so much impact. For the wordy and law-nerdy (myself included), this stuff is gold.

On the L&L blog, the ‘Word of the Day‘ series – a short and sweet guide to legal vocabulary – seeks to provide a bit of instant gratification to this subset of the wordy and law-nerdy. Whether you are a seasoned law veteran with years of experience or a lawyer from overseas seeking to advance your English, I hope these little infographics satisfy the philologist/student/nerd in you.

And stay tuned for longer analytic articles to be posted soon. The next post is a look into the origins of “cruel and unusual.” These are words that we hear often in the criminal and human rights context regarding punishment. Have you ever wondered where they came from?

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