From ‘Green Card’ to ‘Thin Blue Line’:
Lawtalk looks at popular legal expressions

A new book co-authored by SMU Law Prof. Elizabeth Thornburg looks at the unusual origins of law-related terms.

Lawtalk book cover

DALLAS (SMU) – Elizabeth Thornburg never imagined that she would be turning to Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare and vaudeville for legal research. But those sources proved invaluable when she joined forces with another law professor, a law librarian and a legal lexicographer for the book Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions (Yale University Press, 2011).

Elizabeth Thornburg
Elizabeth Thornburg
Hear her interview on KERA. audio

Written by SMU Dedman School of Law professor Thornburg, along with James E. Clapp, Marc Galanter and Fred Shapiro, Lawtalk explores the origins and uses of 77 popular law-related expressions, including some of Thornburg’s favorites:

  • Blue laws: Government regulation of behavior intended to enforce moral values. “The name was popularized by a Connecticut Anglican priest with an ax to grind,” Thornburg says.
  • CSI effect: The impact that the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation might have on real juries in real criminal cases. “CSI and similar shows depict trace evidence being analyzed by earnest, attractive, well-dressed technicians. The results are portrayed as fast, cheap, objective, and completely reliable. This incomplete fictional portrait worries both prosecution and defense lawyers … ”
  • Lawyers, guns & money: A catchphrase denoting the “incentive to fight with all the tools available” adopted from the Warren Zevon song by the same name.
  • Kangaroo court: Surprisingly, this phrase didn’t jump from Australia to the U.S. It surfaced during the frontier days of Texas. At least three different kinds of “courts” went by this name: Those run by the ranchmen to enforce rules of the cattle business; those run by cowboys to enforce their own protocols (as in cleaning up the “smutty” language around the campfires); and those used to haze newcomers and everyone else.
  • Thin blue line: An image in which the “police, clad in blue, form a shield between the law-abiding populace and the criminal elements and forces of evil” is actually related to British army “red coats.”
  • Green card: The card — representing a noncitizen’s right to live and work in the United States indefinitely — isn’t actually green. (Well, not any more.) And it’s a great example of “Spanglish,” or the way words switch back and forth between languages, Thornburg says. “The earliest reference to ‘green card’ was in a 1962 story in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Ruben Salazar, who did a four-part series about Mexican seasonal farm workers.” In quoting the workers, Salazar used the Spanish term “tarjeta verde” and translated it as “green card” throughout the series and in many subsequent articles. It quickly spread, becoming common in English in 1964, “ironically, just as the card stopped being green,” Thornburg says. 
    Lawtalk book coverBut then, something even more interesting began to happen: The language swap went back the other way. Two years ago Thornburg noticed an immigration advice column in the Dallas-based Spanish-language newspaper Al Día. Instead of talking about a ‘tarjeta verde,’ the newspaper referred to it as a “green card” ­— in English. As Al Dia’s copy chief, Jorge Chávez, explained, “We believe at this point ‘green card’ is a term understood by all our readers. Most Spanish speakers use ‘green card’ in their everyday lingo, and not ‘tarjeta verde.’ ”
Thornburg enjoys the insights that come from studying what language can tell us about the law. “Law pervades U.S. society, and the words and metaphors we use to talk about law give powerful clues about our values and what’s important to Americans as a people,” she says. “Tracing where legal language comes from can also highlight the impact of history, good and bad, on today’s law.”

Thornburg, who joined SMU in 1984, teaches and writes in the area of civil procedure and the intersection of law and culture. Drawing on her experience with civil rights and commercial litigation, her scholarship focuses on the procedural fairness of the litigation process, especially at the pleadings, discovery and jury charge stages. The Norwalk, Conn., native also writes and speaks in the areas of comparative procedure, complex litigation and online dispute resolution.

 “I think people will enjoy this book,” she says. “While based on solid scholarship, it’s written to be fun to read. Linguists will love all the new discoveries about the origins of legal terms. Lawyers will love discovering the richness of our verbal universe. Historians will love observing the seamlessness of legal and non-legal history.”

For more information about Lawtalk, click here.

For News Media:

To request a review copy, please contact Robert Pranzatelli with Yale University Press: or 203-432-0972. To schedule an interview with Elizabeth Thornburg, contact Denise Gee at 214-768-7658 (office) or

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