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'Jailbait'? 'Third Degree'? New Book Tracks Down Origins of Common Legal Phrases

Via a post on The Faculty Lounge I came across an interesting new book called "Lawtalk: The Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions." The authors of the book are James E. Clapp, Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Marc Galanter and Fred R. Shapiro. As described on Amazon, 

Law-related words and phrases abound in our everyday language, often without our being aware of their origins or their particular legal significance: boilerplatejailbaitpound of fleshrainmakerthe third degree. This insightful and entertaining book reveals the unknown stories behind familiar legal expressions that come from sources as diverse as Shakespeare, vaudeville, and Dr. Seuss. ...

Skimming the Table of Contents, I selected several phrases to learn their origins, including:

  • "Affirmative action": First used in President Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 in 1961, which requires federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." "Lawtalk" credits the phrase to Houston businessman Hobart Taylor Jr., who drafted the executive order. Taylor says he chose the phrase "affirmative action" over alternatives such as "positive action" because "it was alliterative."
  • "One bite at the apple": This expression was originally stated as "one bite at the cherry," which made sense because a cherry is small and eaten in one bite. However, in the 20th century, the word "cherry" took on the additional meaning of "hymen" or "virgin." According to Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, the phrase appears to have gradually changed to "one bite of the apple" because its users were embarrassed by the new double-entendre. As "Lawtalk" notes, however, this substitution was somewhat unfortunate because the switch was from an image that made sense to one that did not, since "usually you get lots of bites at an apple."
  • "Hearsay": This term originated in a 16th century textbook on French language that included English translations. In one of the discussions, a cleric is trying to explain the properties of earth, water, air and fire, but admits this is not his area of expertise. He stated French words meaning "I know nothing about it except by hearing it said," which was translated in the book as "I knowe nothying of it but by here say." The phrase "by hear say" gradually began to appear in English writings, eventually as a single word: "hearsay."

The book seems like an interesting resource for lawyers interested in the origins of some of the phrases that they utter on a daily basis. Check it out here.

Posted by Bruce Carton on November 9, 2011 at 04:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

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