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Legally Speaking: Where legal phrases come from


The following is from the May 1, 2012, edition of The Southeast Texas Record.

May 1, 2012

By John G. Browning 

Even if you are not a lawyer, you've no doubt heard plenty of words and phrases related to the law and the legal profession, such as "shyster," "third degree," "hearsay," "rap sheet," or "boilerplate." But did you ever wonder where they came from?

If so, then the book "Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions" (Yale University Press 2011) is for you. Written by my SMU Law School colleague Elizabeth Thornburg along with James Clapp, Marc Galanter and Fred Shapiro, "Lawtalk" is an entertaining, painstakingly researched book that reveals the hidden stories behind expressions that we now take for granted.

In many instances, the source may surprise you-the words and expressions discussed in the book trace their origins back not just to the early days of the legal system, but to sources like Shakespeare, vaudeville entertainers and even Dr. Seuss.

Professor Thornburg and her co-authors (who include a fellow law professor, a law librarian and a legal lexicographer) use the stories behind the 77 legal expressions covered in the book to illustrate what language itself can tell us about the law.

"Law pervades U.S. society, and the words and metaphors we use to talk about law give us powerful clues about our values and what's important to Americans as a people," Thornburg says. "Tracing where legal language comes from can also highlight the impact of history, good and bad, on today's law."

Read the full story.

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