Illuminate Legal Terminology™
Law Explorers

Legal research, legal writing, and legal translation are the lights that illuminate the dark, unknown regions in the universe of law.


Can we translate our customary methods and techniques when research transports us into another legal culture?

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Cultures and legal systems other than our own have made valuable contributions to the history of written law.

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Translation provides a laboratory in which we can learn to elevate our capacity to select and use legal terminology.

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Law Explorers® was inspired by a desire to learn about the language of the law and about the legal systems of our world.  This desire to learn gave birth to[1] an idea[2] that we[3] can shape[4] individually and collectively.  The idea is simple, but the implications are profound:

Legal research, legal writing, and legal translation are interrelated skills[5] through which we can extend our comprehension of legal terminology[6] and explore other[7] languages[8] and legal systems.[9]

Research, writing, and translation inform us about law.  They are also excellent vehicles for education because they transport us across borders, languages, cultures, and time.

Our exploration of law and legal terminology will expose us to a variety of subjects:

Most of us know relatively little about those subjects — but experts[16] and amateurs[17] alike can gain much from the adventure.

A spirit of cooperation,[18] pluralism,[19] and innovation[20] will serve as our passport during the journey throughout language, law, and legal systems.  We will cultivate our capacity to perform two tasks that are vital in our local and global communities:

  • manage the difficulties of the language and terminology of law; and
  • appreciate the diverse viewpoints of other people, cultures, and legal systems.

All of us benefit when we interchange questions and ideas[21] and compare resources and methods.[22]  Because the benefits multiply as we expand the representation of cultures, languages, and legal systems, Law Explorers® values your participation as well as your suggestions and comments. 

Above all, Law Explorers® values your love for learning.[23]  With that in mind, we will commence our exploration of the diverse[24] universe[25] of law and legal systems through the arts of research,[26] writing,[27] and translation.[28]

[1] In a figurative sense, the phrase “give birth to” means “to bring forth a new idea, an invention, a nation, etc.”  Richard A. Spears, comp., McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005), s.v. “give birth to.”  The literal sense of the phrase is “to have a child” or “to bring forth young.”  Spears, McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, s.v. “give birth to.”  The phrase “give birth to” serves as an example of a personification metaphor that “allows us to comprehend a wide variety of experiences with nonhuman entities in terms of human motivations, characteristics, and activities.”  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 33.

[2] One of the synonyms of the noun “idea” is “hypothesis.”  Christine A. Lindberg, comp., Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “idea.”  Here is one description of the value of hypotheses in science:

It has been said with deep conviction that hypotheses are the first murmurings of reason in the darkness of the unknown; the sounding instrument lowered into the mysterious abyss; in short, the high, lofty, and audacious bridge connecting the familiar shore with the unexplored continent.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator, trans. Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson, [rev. ed.] (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 117.

[3] Throughout this website, the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” refer collectively to you, Law Explorers®, and everyone else in our community unless the context dictates otherwise.  Context is a guide from which we will frequently solicit counsel throughout our exploration of language, research, writing, translation, and legal systems.

We can borrow a useful definition of the term “context” from the sphere of literary discussion, where “context” means “those parts of a text preceding and following any particular passage, giving it a meaning fuller or more identifiable than if it were read in isolation.”  Chris Baldick, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “context” (internal reference omitted).  Because “[v]irtually any word or phrase has a potentially enormous range of meanings unless the sense is limited by a context,” context is an important tool “that enables us to resolve lexical ambiguity.”  Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes, Legal Translation Explained, Transaction Practices Explained 4 (Manchester: St. Jerome, 2002), 37.  Context can help translators “identify and ascertain the meaning of a particular word with both ordinary and legal meanings or a word with several legal meanings.”  Deborah Cao, Translating Law, Topics in Translation 33 (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2007), 70.

[4] The Greek word μορϕἡ meant “form, shape, figure,” and the verb μορϕóω meant “to form, give shape to.”  [Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott], A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1996), s.v.v. “ΜΟΡΦΗ,” “μορϕóω.”  The English word “morphology” became the term for “[t]he form (including change, formation, and inflection) of words in a language” and for the corresponding branch of linguistics in addition to the word’s general sense (“[s]hape, form, external structure or arrangement”) and its use as the name for “[t]he branch of biology that deals with the form of living organisms, and with relationships between their structures.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “morphology.”  The term “morphological process” refers to “[a]ny of the formal processes or operations by which the forms of words are derived from stems or roots.”  P.H. Matthews, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), s.v. “morphological process” (internal references omitted).

[5] This explanation of the Indo-European root sek, which eventually produced the English word “skill,” is relevant to research, writing, and translation as well as the use of power tools:

Early man found and fashioned tools.  To shells and to stones sharp or chipped sharp he added hilts or handles, the better to scrape, scratch, dig, cut apart.  Then the basic roots for these tools, for the operations performed, for the things made with them, took on wider meaning.  Thus “to scratch or incise letters” (on stone, wood, wax, clay, papyrus) produced “scribes” and “scribblers” — and current “scrabblers.”  To cut, as diamond-shapers and butchers are aware, demands the knowledge and skill to separate wisely.

Joseph T.  Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), s.v. “sek” (internal references omitted; italics replaced by double quotation marks).

[6] In this context, the noun “terminology” refers to “[t]he set of technical words used in a particular subject, such as physics, law, cricket — or language study.”  David Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), s.v. “terminology.”

[7] The word “other” is used here as an adjective in the sense “[e]xisting besides or distinct from that or those already specified or implied,” but the history of the word reveals that it has sometimes been used in a negative context as a noun in the sense “[a]nother thing; something else.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “other.”  An example is the use in philosophy of “the Other” as a “[t]erm intended to circumscribe other human beings, and their differences from me (or us),” a sense that can lead “to charges of privileging the self or selves” if “[t]he otherness of other people” is “underplayed” or “overplayed.”   Simon Blackburn, comp., The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “Other, the.”

Professor Werner Menski described the effect of “the other” on students who had studied Asian and African laws in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London:

Some students are nervous about having to study “other” systems which their religious or cultural norms seem to treat as ideological enemies or simply as backward, “traditional” or “religious” hocus-pocus; others reach levels of analytical sharpness they never imagined to exist.  It has been particularly instructive that not only “white” students have difficulties in understanding “the other”.  In a globally oriented comparative law class, everyone is in the same boat, having to travel and come to terms with many “others”.

Werner Menski, Comparative Law in a Global Context: The Legal Systems of Asia and Africa, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 78-79 (single quotation marks changed to double).

[8] In a general sense, the noun “language” signifies “[t]he systematic, conventional use of sounds, signs, or written symbols in a human society for communication and self-expression.”  Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, s.v. “language.”  We should take into account, however, the fact that the noun possesses a variety of applications, including senses such as “[t]he professional or specialized vocabulary of a discipline, a group of people, etc.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “language.”  Lexicographer Bryan Garner noted that the use of “‘language’ in the sense ‘wording of a document or provision’ is peculiar to the law.”  Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), s.v. “language” (double quotation marks and bold emphasis changed to singlequotation marks).

[9] Philosopher H.L.A. Hart noted that “the existence of a legal system” is a “complex phenomenon.”  H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 61.  The definition of a “legal system” also presents difficulty:

A legal system . . . is not easily defined, as there is more than one approach to the description of what constitutes such a system.

. . . [W]hen used in [a] comparative sense, the term “legal system” has come to have a more specific and deeper meaning than merely the particular collection of legal rules, institutions and machinery in a given jurisdiction.

Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Commonwealth Caribbean Law and Legal Systems, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge-Cavendish, 2008), 35.

[10] Historical jurisprudence originated from “[t]he view that history has a significant role in explaining the current state of law, as well as its past development and likely future direction.” Brian H. Bix, A Dictionary of Legal Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), s.v. “historical jurisprudence.”

[11] Lexicography is “[t]he professional activity and academic field concerned with dictionaries and other reference works.”  R.R.K. Hartmann and Gregory James, Dictionary of Lexicography (London: Routledge, 2001), s.v. “lexicography” (internal references omitted).

[12] The boundaries of linguistics are uncertain:

Linguistics is defined in general dictionaries as the “science of language” or “the scientific study of language”.  In the more cautious wording of The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, it is “the branch of knowledge that deals with language”.  But although it is the only academic discipline that deals with language alone, and there are aspects of language that it alone is concerned with, its practitioners cannot claim a monopoly of the whole of their subject matter.  A range of other disciplines, from the study of literature to computer science, deal with language in one way or another, and the boundaries between them and linguistics are not fixed.

Matthews, introduction to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, vii (double quotation marks changed to single).  In the field of law, “[linguistic research] can . . . provide practical guidance for legal professionals concerned with policy issues such as the reliability of evidence or the accessibility of law to the general public.”  Elizabeth Mertz and Susan U. Philips, “Institutional Linguistics:  Law and Language,” in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, ed. William J. Frawley, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2:287.

[13] History indicates that the limits of the word “philosophy” are generous:

The Greek word sophia is ordinarily translated into English as “wisdom,” and the compound philosophia, from which “philosophy” derives, is translated as “the love of wisdom.”  But sophia had a much wider range of application than the modern English “wisdom.”. . .  Briefly, then, philosophia etymologically connotes the love of exercising one’s curiosity and intelligence rather than the love of wisdom.  Although philosophers have often sought to confine the word “philosophy” within narrower boundaries, in popular usage it has never entirely lost its original breadth of meaning.

John Passmore, “Philosophy,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 6:216.

[14] Semantics is “[a] branch of linguistics concerned with the study of meaning.”  Hartmann and James, Dictionary of Lexicography s.v. “semantics” (internal references omitted).  More specifically, “[s]emantics is the study and representation of the meaning of every kind of constituent and expression in language, and also the meaning of relationships among them.”  Keith Allan, “Semantics: Overview,” in Frawley, International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 4:1.

In several Indo-European languages, “[t]he ‘meaning’ (of a word, sentence, etc., in part also of an action) is expressed by [derivatives] of words for ‘sign, point out, explain’, and by words meaning primarily  ‘reason, thought, sense, understanding, intention, power, force, value, inwardness’, etc.”  Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages: A Contribution to the History of Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 17.33.  The Greek term for sign, [σημα], continues to contribute to our study of language, and we see its contribution in terms such as “polysemy” and “semantics,” of which some form of [σημα] constitutes a part.  [Liddell and Scott], A Lexicon, s.v. “[ΣΗΜΑ]”; Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.v. “polysemous,” “polysemy,” “semantic,” “semantico-,” “semantics.”  The modern terms sémantique and polysémie originated from the work of linguist Michel Bréal during the second half of the nineteenth century CE.  Anna Morpurgo Davies, “Bréal, Michel,” in Frawley, International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 1:249; Louis Kukenheim, Esquisse historique de la linguistique française et de ses rapports avec la linguistique générale, Leidse Romanistische Reeks 8 (Leiden: Universitaire Pers, 1962), 148.

[15] The term “semiotics” is “generally defined as the science of signs.”  Marcel Danesi, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Media, and Communications (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), s.v. “semiotics.”  In that context, the term sign refers to “[s]omething that stands for something else in some capacity.”  Danesi, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Media, and Communications, s.v. “sign.”  The related term “symbol” refers to a “sign that represents or refers to something in an arbitrary, conventional way” or “any sign referring to an abstract notion.”  Danesi, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Media, and Communications, s.v. “symbol” (internal reference omitted).

[16] The general respect for experts is evident in two of the more common meanings of the English noun “expert”:

  • “A person with the status of an authority (in a subject) by reason of special skill, training, or knowledge; a specialist.”
  • “A person who is expert or who has gained skill from experience.”

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “expert.”

[17] Law Explorers® welcomes amateurs who love language and law.  The Latin nominative amātor referred to “a lover, friend.”  Charlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary: With Brief Helps for Latin Readers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “amātor” (emphasis omitted).  During the eighteenth century CE, the noun “amateur” took its place in the English language with the sense “lover (of some activity or thing).”  Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz, eds., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2008), s.v. “amateur.”  In addition to the derogatory sense “dabbler,” more recent senses of “amateur” include “[a] person who is fond of something,” “who has a taste for something,” or “who practises something only as a pastime.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “amateur.”

[18] The English noun “cooperation” was “borrowed possibly through Middle French coopération, or directly from Late Latin cooperātiōnem . . . a working together.”  Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “cooperate.”

[19] Here the term “pluralism” is used in the sense “[t]he general tolerance of different kinds of thing, or more particularly of different and perhaps incommensurable descriptions of the world, none of which is deemed to be more fundamental than any of the others.”  Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “pluralism” (internal reference omitted).  The term “legal pluralism” has been used in more than one sense:

The extent to which a single nation or community is subject to entirely separate sets of norms.  Sometimes the term is used to apply to situations where, for example, colonial rulers had recognized or incorporated in part local customary law, along with the rules that the colonial powers had brought with them.  Other theorists use the term more loosely, to indicate the way that most societies are subject to multiple law or law-like orders.

Bix, A Dictionary of Legal Theory, s.v. “legal pluralism” (italics omitted).

[20] The synonyms of the English noun “innovation” include “modernization,” “novelty,” “creativity,” “originality,” “ingenuity,” and “inspiration.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “innovation.”

[21] For instance, we frequently benefit when we explain a problem to another person:

In explaining a problem to another person, and especially to someone not familiar with that field of science, it is necessary to clarify and amplify aspects of it that have been taken for granted and the familiar chain of thought cannot be followed.  Not infrequently it happens that while one is making the explanation, a new thought occurs to one without the other person having said a word.

W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation, [3rd ed.] (New York: Vintage Books, n.d.), 88.

[22] “Approaches to legal research,” for example, “may . . . be shaped by the availability of research materials.  Knowledge of alternative research tools is valuable, as researchers do not always have access to all of the different paper, microform, or electronic resources. . . . Moreover, preferred resources do not, at times, produce the expected results.”  Steven M. Barkan, “The Legal Research Process,” in Roy M. Mersky and Donald J. Dunn, Fundamentals of Legal Research, 8th ed. (New York: Foundation Press, 2002), 14.

[23] An English term for the “love of learning” is “philology,” which is also the name for “the branch[es] of knowledge that [deal] with the linguistic, historical, interpretative, and critical aspects of literature” and “with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “philology” (parentheses omitted).

In one sense, “learning” is considered a synonym of “knowledge”:

Knowledge applies to any body of facts gathered by study, observation, or experience, and to the ideas inferred from these facts. . . . Scholarship emphasizes academic knowledge or accomplishment . . ., while learning is knowledge gained not only by study in schools and universities but by individual research and investigation . . ., which puts it on a somewhat higher plane.

Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “knowledge” (bold emphasis omitted).

[24] The adjective “diverse” came to the English language from Old French with the meaning of “separate, distinct.”  Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “divers,” “diverse.”  It is used here in the sense “[d]iffering from itself in different circumstances, at different times, or in different parts; varied; changeful.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “diverse.” 

[25] The English noun “universe” is used here in the figurative sense “[a] domain or sphere characterized by a particular (specified) quality or activity; a sphere of activity, existence, interest, etc.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “universe.”  The noun claims a distinguished history that includes the works of Plato and Aristotle, translation by Cicero, and variations in multiple languages.  C.T. Onions, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, with the assistance of G.W.S. Friedrichsen and R.W. Burchfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “universe.”

[26] “Legal research is as much art as science.  There are many approaches to legal research, and there is no single, or best way to conduct legal research.  Methods vary according to the nature of the problem and depend on the researcher’s subject expertise and research skills.”  Barkan, “The Legal Research Process,” 14.

The field of science provides another explanation of why research is an art:

In research, as indeed in everyday life, very often we have of necessity to decide our course of action on personal judgment based on taste.  Only the technicalities of research are “scientific” in the sense of being purely objective and rational.  Paradoxical as it may at first appear, the truth is that . . . scientific research is an art, not a science.

Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation, 184 (reference omitted). 

[27] According to Professor Raúl Carrancá y Rivas, the art of literature includes “the Law” because both use words as instruments and are susceptible of interpretation:

El Derecho es literatura.  La literatura, grosso modo, es el arte que emplea la palabra como instrumento. . . . Lo notable del Derecho es su calidad o condición para poder ser interpretado, igual que la literatura.  No sucedería así si la palabra se hallara ausente del Derecho, si el Derecho fuese sólo y nada más una idea jurídica.  Imposible.  La palabra es por naturaleza susceptible de interpretación; y el intérprete, a su vez, hace arte literario.

Raúl Carrancá y Rivas, El derecho y la palabra (ius semper loquitur) (México: Porrúa, 1998), 153.

[28] Translation has evolved into “one of the rare human disciplines that can claim to be at the same time an art and a science”:

[P]eu à peu sont établis le statut (quasi) scientifique et le caractère singulier de la traduction, une des rares disciplines humaines qui puissent se réclamer à la fois de l’art et de la science.

Jean-Claude Gémar, Traduire ou l’art d’interpréter: Fonctions, statut et esthétique de la traduction; Tome 1, principes (Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 1995), 37.


Title of page Origin
Address of page
Languages Greek; Indo-European; English; Middle French; Late Latin; Old French
Terms and phrases law; legal terminology; language; legal system; research; writing; translation; legal research; legal writing; legal translation
Metaphors, metonyms, and other figurative expressions give birth to
Publications Metaphors We Live By; Advice for a Young Investigator; Legal Translation Explained; The Art of Scientific Investigation; International Encyclopedia of Linguistics; Fundamentals of Legal Research
Authors Deborah Cao; Joseph Shipley; David Crystal; Werner Menski; Bryan Garner; H.L.A. Hart; Rose-Marie Belle Antoine; Brian Bix; Keith Allan; Carl Darling Buck; Louis Kukenheim; Raul Carranca y Rivas; Jean-Claude Gemar
Individuals Michel Breal; Plato; Aristotle; Cicero