As someone who, when refinancing my house, lost an argument with my banker over the true meaning of "may" respecting a fee in the contract, I picked up the book Lawtalkwith great interest. I did not find in the book an explanation of the nuances of legalese that might have served in my banking dispute— Lawtalkis not that kind of book. And yet I was not disappointed in the slightest, for what I had found was a book with lively and clear explanations of how certain legal expressions developed and have become part of the cultural lexicon of the United States—from the slangy rap sheetto the mundane billable hourto the sinister Jim Crow.
The book is the work of four scholars, each contributing his or her particular expertise: James E. Clapp, a lawyer and legal lexicographer, and author of Random House Webster's Dictionary of the Law; Elizabeth G. Thornburg, a professor at SMU Dedman School of Law, and a specialist in legal metaphors; Marc Galanter, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture; and Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale University and editor of The Yale Book of Quotations.
Arranged in alphabetical order, the 77 essays are expansive (the shortest, jailbait, is about a page long; many entries span several pages) presenting a full and fascinating account of the linguistic and social history of each term and its impact on culture and the legal profession. Initials at the end of each entry indicate which author contributed it (the bulk of the content is attributed to Clapp and Thornburg), presumably reflecting the authors' interests and expertise, and yet the book maintains a consistency of voice and approach across all the contributions.
As the title makes clear, Lawtalkis not about legal language necessarily—the formal, and formulaic, jargon in contracts or credit card forms—but about law "talk," the "law-related language [that] pervades our everyday speech" (ix). Thus, while some of the terms and expressions whose stories the authors tell do originate in legal usage and largely remain there ( Chinese wall, corpus delicti), most of them reflect the fluid relationship between legal or political contexts and popular or high culture, in which terms arise in one sphere and expand into another. We [End Page 266]act with deliberate speed(from Brown v. the Board of Education) and argue over affirmative action(from the text of a Kennedy executive order). We speak of the CSI effect(television), bemoan blue laws(religion) or joke that we'll kill all the lawyers( Shakespeare).
Some of the entries remind us about the legal contexts for terms and expressions that are so familiar that we do not think about their origins, such as aid and abet, eye for an eye, read the riot act, and three-fifths rule—though we may not be able to define boilerplatelanguage, we know it when we see it. But the real treasure here is arguably in the stories that will be unfamiliar to many readers ( badge of slavery, black letter law, and hornbook lawwere new to me); that track how meanings have shifted remarkably ( politically correctwas once a term of approbation); and that debunk false etymologies ( rule of thumbhas nothing to do with domestic violence). The authors demonstrate that we think we know what law talk is, and often we know what it means today, but we don't know how law talk came into being; nor do we know how terms and ideas—even sounds—have changed over time.
In each entry the authors scrupulously trace from historical sources (literature, news, legal cases, etc.) a term or expression from its origin to its current use, in a narrative style with vivid details. One such example is the story of wet foot, dry foot, a phrase borrowed from a Dr. Seuss book...