Saturday, May 8, 2004


Legal jargon

Words from the legal world are often from Latin, showing the stamp of the British who used this language for all matters of gravity. Two words from the register of law figured in the newspapers recently. Register, from the Latin regesta, means ‘things recorded’ in Latin. In English, it means a book or record-book. For the linguist, a register is the variety of a language or a level of usage as determined by the degree of formality, choice of vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax according to the communicative purpose, social context and role of the user. The register of law is remarkable for the loan words it carries.

Coming back to those two words. The first is amicus curiae, which in Latin means ‘friend of the court’. In the context of the present, an amicus curiae is ‘an impartial adviser to a court of law in a particular case’. The second, mandamus, meaning ‘we command’ in Latin, refers to a judicial writ issued as a command to an inferior court or ordering a person to perform a public or statutory duty.

While on the subject, let’s look at some more legal terms. Sub judice, in Latin, means ‘under a judge’. Judice, the Latin root, comes from judex or judge. In the early seventeenth century, sub judice was borrowed by English to denote that a particular matter is still under consideration by a judge or a court of law. Today, the implication and warning is that the matter is still undecided, the subject of legal procedure and should not be commented on in public.

Meum et tuum announces a law of property that states: "What is mine belongs to me and what is yours belongs to you; each party should respect the right of the other to retain and enjoy his/her property." It came to English in the sixteenth century. In Latin, it means ‘mine and yours’.

Prima facie is made up of the Latin words primus (first) and facies (face), creating the metaphorical sense of ‘on first sight’. In law, prima facie refers to any idea or opinion based on the first impression and accepted as correct until proved otherwise. This expression came to English in the early fifteenth century, to reach the register of law in the eighteenth century. In the legal lexicon, it is used as an adverbial phrase as well as an adjective in sentences like ‘her action was prima facie illegal’ and ‘the prima facie evidence shows that he has committed the crime.’

When court is adjourned sine die, it means that no day has been announced for its resumption and the progress of the matter under consideration stands suspended for the time being. In Latin, sine die means ‘without a day’.


In Mughal and British times, officials had to shoulder executive and magisterial duties. After the twentieth century, these duties were separated and different people appointed on these posts, but the words that they have left behind enshrine the history of India. Today, faujdari refers to criminal cases. In Mughal times, a faujdar was a commander of the army who was entrusted with magisterial and executive powers as well. In the same vein, a law officer under the East India Company was called pandit. With the passage of time, some of these titles have metamorphosed into dinosaurs or have shrunk in meaning: qazi, mufti, sadar munim, tahsildar and kotwal.