Legalese — For the Love of Latin

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The law is full of little Latin phrases, some of which are handy shorthand in every day life.  Following is a list of some of the most common and/or some of my favorites.

Per Stirpes/Per Capita:  Literally meaning “through the stripe” or “through the head” it is a designation in a will which indicates whether your children inherit your property “per stirpes” or “per capita” – meaning, if one of them passes away before you, do their children (your grandchildren) get their share, or do your other children (their siblings) get their share.  It’s easier to explain with pictures.

Instanter: It means ‘instantly,’ but is only ever used to mean “right-freaking-now and I am about out of patience.”

Guardian ad Litem:  This means “guardian at law.”  Generally, a guardian ad litem is someone who is appointed by the court to watch out for the best interests of a minor child or incapacitated adult who is involved somehow in a lawsuit.

Voir Dire:  This one is actually French, not Latin, and it literally means “to see to speak.”  No two lawyers pronounce it the same way.  A French person would say “Vwah deer.”  Lawyers usually say some variation on “vohr dyer.” It means to question a potential juror or an expert witness to see if they qualify for being a juror or expert witness or something like that.

Res Ipsa Loquitor:  This one isn’t used very often, but it is fun to say.  It means, basically, the thing is what it is.  Let’s say you leave a three year old in the kitchen with a box of chocolate chip cookies.  You go away for five minutes, and when you come back, there are no chocolate chip cookies, and there are chocolate stains on the kid’s fingers and cheeks.  You have no direct evidence that the kid ate the cookies, but come on, really.  You can use the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitor to convict him.

Nota Bene:  This one is useful in every day emails and whatnot.  It means, “note well” and is often abbreviated as “NB” or “N.B.”  You’d use it like this “NB: if you do not respond by Friday, we will sue you for seven zillion dollars.”  In the PTO, you’d use it like this, “NB: If you don’t have your money in by Friday, your child will not be allowed to go on the field trip and you will have to deal with his crying butt.”  It means, basically, “Pay attention.  This next part is super important.”

Habeas Corpus:  This literally means “to have the body.”  A ‘habeas corpus’ action is used when someone (usually a jail or maybe an institution for the mentally ill) is holding on to someone and you say there are legal reasons why they should not be.

In Rem/In Personam:  “Rem” means “thing” and “personam” means “person.”  An ‘in rem’ action is about a thing, say, who owns a particular piece of property, or can a law enforcement agency seize your house because you were growing marijuana in the basement.  An ‘in personam’ action is about a person, such as a divorce, a failure to pay money or do something you were obligated to do, or a personal injury.

The Suffix –Trix:  English is one of the few languages that does not have genders for nouns.  In Spanish, for example, “Amigo” is a male friend, and “Amiga” is a female one.  The suffix “-trix” is just the Latin feminine suffix.  So, the person who writes a will is the Testator if he is male, and the Testatrix if she is female.  The person in charge of seeing that the provisions in the will are carried out is the Executor if male, and the Executrix if female.  A dominator is someone who dominates over another person if they are male, and a dominatrix is, well, ahem.

Are there any other Latin phrases you were wondering about?  Let me know in the comments below and I’ll let you know what they mean.

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