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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A traditional wedding rhyme begins with the list “[s]omething old, something new, something borrowed . . .”[1]  In legal terminology, we encounter a similar inventory of the old, the new, and the borrowed:[2]

  • Archaisms[3] represent the old.
  • Neologisms[4] represent the new.
  • The borrowed comes from ordinary language,[5] a foreign language,[6] or another legal system.[7]

With its mercurial[8] definitions,[9] meanings,[10] and senses,[11] this formidable mixture of legal terminology projects the image of a hopeless Pandora’s box:[12]

  • Terminology evolves as new words[13] are created and the meanings of old words change or expand.[14]
  • When legal terms[15] move from one legal system to another, they gain a new life with new meanings.[16]
  • Apparent differences in terminology sometimes conceal similarities in concepts,[17] and similar terms sometimes conceal different meanings.[18]

But hope remains in this Pandora’s box in spite of the labyrinths and mysteries of legal terms and definitions.  We can make sense of[19] legal terminology if we appreciate the significance[20] of the sense relations[21] that exist between words:

  • synonymy[22] (for example, “give, devise, and bequeath”),[23]
  • partial synonymy[24] (for example, “legal and lawful”),[25]
  • polysemy[26] (for example, “common law”),[27]
  • homonymy[28] (for example, مشترك),[29]
  • antonymy[30] (for example, demandeur and défendeur),[31] and
  • metaphor[32] (for example, 法).[33]

As one maxim[34] instructs us, “Where the terms of an art are unknown, the art is also unknown.”[35]  To understand the arts of legal research, legal writing, and legal translation, then, we need to illuminate legal terminology and navigate the Unknown.

[1] The traditional version consists of three lines:

Something old, something new,

Something borrowed, something blue,

And a lucky sixpence in her shoe.

John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature, ed. Justin Kaplan, 17th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002), 850:13.

[2] Legal terminology is a mixture in more than one way.  First, in legal language, “words from ordinary language used in their ordinary meaning” mix with “words from ordinary language used in a technical sense” and the purely “technical terms” of law or other specialist fields.  Heikki E.S. Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, trans. Christopher Goddard (Farnham: Ashgate, 2006), 91.  Second, words from ordinary language mix with newly created words and words from foreign languages:

The vocabulary of legal language – like that of other languages for special purposes – can be formed in three ways:  (a) a word already in existence in ordinary language, or in the language of another specialism, obtains a specialized or broader meaning; (b) a neologism of national origin is created; (3) a word is borrowed from a foreign language (or from another national language).

Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, 113.

[3] Lexicographer Bryan Garner explained that“[a]rchaisms, outmoded words or expressions that are not yet obsolete, abound in the language of the law.”  Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), s.v. “archaisms” (emphasis omitted).  In the U.S., “the language of the law retains numerous Old and Middle English words and meanings which have long since passed out of general usage.”  David Mellinkoff, The Language of the Law (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2004), 13.  But the preservation of archaisms offers at least one benefit.  In spite of negative impact that archaic terminology has on comprehension, “the phenomenon [of ossification of legal language] is positive from the standpoint of preserving the cultural heritage. . . . Ossified legal language is a kind of linguistic museum that enables archaeology of language.”  Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, 58-59.

[4] A “neologism” is a new word that is created to give a name to a new object or concept.  Fernando Lázaro Carreter, Diccionario de términos filológicos, 3rd ed., Biblioteca Románica Hispánica, Manuales 6 (Madrid: Gredos, [1998]), s.v. “neologismo.”  Neologisms are created through the morphological resources of a language, through the attribution of new meanings to existing words, or through borrowing from a dialect or a foreign or ancient language:

[Les] néologismes soient créés avec les ressources morphologiques de la langue — c’est la néologie classiquement appelée formelle — ou [ils] résultent de nouveaux sens attribués à des mots existant déjà — c’est la néologie généralement dite sémantique —, ou bien encore [ils] résultent d’un emprunt à un dialecte, une langue étrangère ou ancienne.

Jean Pruvost and Jean-François Sablayrolles, Les néologismes, Que sais-je ? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003), 10.

[5] The term “consideration” is an example of the “semi-technical vocabulary” with “one meaning (or more than one) in the everyday world and another in the field of law” — in this case, a “general meaning [such as] attention, thought, [or] deliberation,” and a legal meaning of “whatever is given or accepted by each party in return for the other party’s reciprocal promise.”  Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes, Legal Translation Explained, Transaction Practices Explained 4 (Manchester: St. Jerome, 2002), 158-60.

[6] English legal language owes much to French, for example:

[L]egal French provided the English with better-classified and better-specified vocabularies and conceptual technicality.  When French words were anglicized, they lost their original pronunciation, but they retained their legal sense.  In fact, most modern English legal words are of French origin.

Sharron Gu, The Boundaries of Meaning and the Formation of Law: Legal Concepts and Reasoning in the English, Arabic, and Chinese Traditions (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 27.

[7] In addition to its contribution to the English legal vocabulary, the French language has contributed much to the terminology of the developing legal system of the European Communities:

In short, we can point to an entirely new type of legal system, the law of the European Communities, with its own characteristics, gradually developing in Europe, side by side with civil law and common law.  This applies as much to legal systematization and to doctrine relating to sources of law as to individual institutions and principles.  These new elements are partly evident in the form of new terminology.  Partly, too, they lie hidden behind established terms coming chiefly from France.  These old terms possess a new conceptual content in Community law.

Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, 108 (internal reference omitted).

[8] The adjective “mercurial” derived from the name of the Roman god Mercury.  Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz, eds., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2008), s.v. “mercury.”  The synonyms include “volatile,” “changeable,” “unpredictable,” “variable,” “erratic,” “inconsistent,” “unstable,” “fluctuating,” and “ever-changing.”  Christine A. Lindberg, comp., Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “mercurial.”

[9] In a reference work, a definition “gives an explanation of the meaning of a word, phrase or term.”  R.R.K. Hartmann and Gregory James, Dictionary of Lexicography (London: Routledge, 2001), s.v. “definition.”  Outside of lexicography, the senses of the word “definition” include, among others, “[p]recision, clarity, exactitude” and “[t]he action of making, or the state of being made, visually clear and distinct.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “definition.”  The synonyms of “definition,” in one of its senses, include “meaning,” “sense,” and “interpretation.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “definition.”

[10] Meaning is “[a]n elusive concept which has been theorized from many different perspectives.”  Roger Fowler, “Meaning, Theories of,” in Dictionary of Theories, ed. Jennifer Bothamley (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2002), 336.  In lexicography, the word “meaning” refers to “[t]he relationship between words or phrases and the objects or ideas which they designate.”  Hartmann and James, Dictionary of Lexicography, s.v. “meaning.”  The synonyms of “meaning,” in one of its senses, include “definition,” “sense,” and “interpretation.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “meaning.”

[11] The noun “sense” is a synonym of both “meaning”and “definition,”but the word also has synonyms such as “feeling,” “consciousness,” “understanding,” and “wisdom.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “sense.”

[12] The expression “Pandora’s box” refers to “[s]omething which . . . seems at first to hold the promise of great benefits to all, but is later seen as the source of unmanageable problems; a valuable gift that eventually becomes a curse.”  P.R. Wilkinson, Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), s.v. “Myths, Greek: Pandora’s box,” J.1c.  “In Greek mythology,” Pandora was “the first woman”; there are different versions of the story, but it appears that a box was given to Pandora before she married Epimetheus.  Bruce Murphy, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), s.v. “Pandora.”  Here is a summary of two versions of the events that followed:

In (1) the box contained all the blessings conferred by the gods on humankind, but Epimetheus rashly opened it and they all flew out and were lost — except for Hope which, being at the bottom, was retained; and (2) the box contained all the ills for humankind which were let loose when the box was opened.

Wilkinson, Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, s.v. “Myths, Greek: Pandora’s box,” J.1c.

[13] The relevant synonyms of the noun “word” include “term,” “name,” “expression,” “ideogram,” “hieroglyphic,” “morpheme,” “etymon,” “symbol,” “representation,” and “sign.”  Jerome Irving Rodale, ed., The Synonym Finder, rev. Laurence Urdang and Nancy LaRoche, with the assistance of Faye C. Allen et al. (Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1978), s.v. “word.”  One definition of the term “word” is “[t]he smallest unit of grammar which can stand alone as a complete utterance”; we use words as “unit[s] of expression in both spoken and written language,” but the term has “several possible definitions.”  David Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), s.v. “word.”

The ambiguous meaning of “word” motivated the introduction of a new term, “lexeme” (or “lexical item”), which is “[t]he smallest distinctive unit in the lexicon of a language” and “may consist of a single word . . . or more than one word.” Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, s.v. “lexeme.”  We sometimes encounter an additional complication when we cross into another language:

[W]hat we call “words” in one language may be units of a different kind from the “words” of another language; and yet the application of the term “word” is not entirely arbitrary, since the relevant features whereby words are established for different languages all tend to support their identification as structural units.

John Lyons, “The Word,” in Morphology: Critical Concepts in Linguistics, ed. Francis Katamba (London: Routledge, 2004), 2:24.

[14] Changes to words are divided into three classes:

  • “phonetic changes” (“cambios fonéticos”) or “changes of sound” (“cambios de sonido”);
  • “morphological changes” (“cambios morfológicos”) or “changes in the form and structure  of words” (“cambios en la forma y estructura de las palabras”); and
  • “semantic changes” (“cambios semánticos”) or “changes of meaning” (“cambios de significado”).

Agustín Mateos Muñoz, Compendio de etimologías grecolatinas del español, 37th ed. (Naucalpan: Esfinge, 1998), 15-16.

The term “semantic change” refers to “[t]he gradual changes in meaning that many words undergo over time,” of which the “[m]ajor processes . . . include generalization, specialization, amelioration, pejoration, and extension.”  Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning (New York: Random House Reference, 2008), 268 (emphasis omitted).  There are multiple causes of semantic change, which can occur with or without phonetic and morphological change, neither of which is sufficient to explain the correct etymology of a word without clarifying the word’s semantics and the surrounding circumstances:

Las causas del cambio semántico son múltiples; las transformaciones de los hechos o cosas, las variaciones de los conceptos, el influjo de los sentimientos humanos, la analogía, las influencias sicológicas y sociales, etc.

Los cambios semánticos pueden acompañar a los cambios fonéticos y morfológicos o ser independientes de ellos.  Pero, en todo caso, para explicar la correcta etimología de una palabra, no basta aclarar las etapas fonéticas y morfológicas.  Es indispensable, además, aclarar la semántica de la palabra y de todo su mundo circunstante.

Mateos Muñoz, Compendio de etimologías grecolatinas del español, 17 (reference omitted).

[15] The noun “term” is used here in the sense “[a] word, phrase or alphanumeric symbol used by the practitioners of a specialised technical subject to designate a concept.”  Hartmann and James, Dictionary of Lexicography, s.v. “term” (internal reference omitted).  The relevant synonyms include “word,” “expression,” “phrase,”and “designation.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “term.”

[16] Consider the transformation of the legal language of China:

[F]or the English reader of translated Chinese law, even though modern Chinese legal language is a translated language heavily influenced by Western law and terminology, many Chinese legal terms of foreign origin have unfolded a life of their own in the Chinese legal context.  The Chinese legal language and its terminology, far from serving as simple equivalents of imported ways of understanding, have often acquired new meanings that can “creatively alter, extend or even undermine established European conceptions.”

Deborah Cao, Chinese Law: A Language Perspective (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 169 (single quotation marks changed to double; reference omitted).

[17] For example, the differences between Anglo-American legal systems and Civil Law legal systems do not necessarily present an insuperable obstacle for translators:

There is a considerable disparity between the Anglo-American system of law and the systems in place in the so-called “civil law countries”.  It would be a mistake to underestimate the linguistic difficulties this situation causes translators.  However, translators moving between the two systems do not, in most cases, face the dilemma of absolute terminological asymmetry.  The arrangements are different, but the concepts, and the words in which those concepts are expressed, can usually be found and matched, so long as one knows where to look, and provided one is prepared to make the usual allowances for terms that, in any given language pair, can never be entirely coextensive.

Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, Legal Translation Explained, 47 (single quotation marks changed to double).

[18] “English words and terms,” for example, “are often used with different meanings in continental Europe as opposed to in the U.S.”  J. Paul Lomio and Henrik Spang-Hanssen, Legal Research Methods in the U.S. and Europe, 2nd ed. (Copenhagen: DJØF, 2009), 102.  The apparent similarity of English terms and French terms can also present a problem.  French was the language of the most important courts in England when “[t]he foundations of English common law were . . . laid,” and “[o]ften, legal terms from [legal English and legal French] appear perfectly identical,” but “the relationship between legal English and legal French is complicated,” and “terms that appear identical do not necessarily express the same concepts.”  Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, 201.

[19] The idiom “make sense of” means “to understand someone or something.”  Richard A. Spears, comp., McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005), s.v. “make (some) sense (out) of.”

[20] The English noun “significance” derived from the Latin noun significantia, which was formed on signum, one of the Latin words for sign.  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. “sign”; Charlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary: With Brief Helps for Latin Readers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “sīgnum.”  In one sense, the synonyms of “significance” include “importance,” “consequence,”and “seriousness”; in another sense, the synonyms include “meaning,” “sense,” “signification,”and “implication.”  Lindberg, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, s.v. “significance.”

[21] “Words (more accurately, lexical items) bear sense relations to other words and may also have their own intrinsic sense properties, which reflect necessary aspects of their meaning.”  James R. Hurford, “Semantics: Properties and Relationships,” in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, ed. William J. Frawley, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 4:10.  A sense relation is “[t]he semantic link between two or more words”:

Two basic types of semantic relation can be distinguished: those between word shapes and the meanings of their extralinguistic referents (“conceptual” or “reference” relations) and those between different words and the meanings they share (semantic “inclusion” and “opposition”).  Among the former the most important are homonymy . . . and polysemy. . . . Among the latter sense relations are the inclusive ones of synonymy and hyponymy and various kinds of opposition (antonymy).

Hartmann and James, Dictionary of Lexicography, s.v. “sense relation” (single quotation marks changed to double; internal references omitted).

The development of the concepts of semantic relations varies among linguistic traditions:

[The Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, and Arabic linguistic traditions each] realized at one point or another that there is no one-to-one correspondence between words and things, between words and “meanings” (as belonging to the word, or perceived by the hearer), and between words and intentions or thoughts. . . . As a result, different types of (failure in) correspondence are classified and the concepts of univocity, homonymy and synonymy develop, in various degrees of sophistication, in all traditions.

Wout van Bekkum, Jan Houben, Ineke Sluiter, and Kees Versteegh, The Emergence of Semantics in Four Linguistic Traditions: Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science 82 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1997), 295 (single quotation marks changed to double).

[22] According to one explanation, words “are synonyms if they are close enough in meaning to allow a choice to be made between them in some contexts, without this affecting the meaning of the sentence as a whole.”  Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, s.v. “synonymy” (emphasis omitted).  “Taking into consideration all of the various ways in which substitution of a word or phrase might change the communicative import of an utterance,” however, “it is difficult to find words that are completely synonymous in all of these dimensions.”  M.L. Murphy, “Synonymy,” in Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, eds. Keith Brown and Keith Allan (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009), 970.  The “avoidance of synonymy is a key motivator of semantic change” because, “while a language’s vocabulary expands, so does its range of lexical meaning differentiations.”  Murphy, “Synonymy,” 971.

[23] The expression “give, devise, and bequeath” serves as an example of two notable characteristics of legal English, “the tradition of rhythm” and the combinations of “bilingual synonyms” (“give” and “bequeath” from Old English, and “devise” from Old French).  Mellinkoff, The Language of the Law, 43, 121-22.  The use of pairs of synonyms (doubling) is an Old English tradition that has been preserved in the Common Law tradition but differs from the style of drafters in the Civil Law tradition.  Susan Šarčević, New Approach to Legal Translation (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000), 183-84.

Although lists of synonyms or near-synonyms can serve a useful function sometimes in law, there is no good reason to use “lists of synonymous words” if the differences between those words are irrelevant.  Peter M. Tiersma, Legal Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 113.  For translators, the use of word strings (which “are often synonyms” and “can consist of a series of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and other phrases”) is one problematic characteristic “of private legal documents written in English.”  Deborah Cao, Translating Law, Topics in Translation 33 (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2007), 88.  These “[w]ord strings . . . can present problems in translation as other languages may not have a string of corresponding words with similar meanings.”  Cao, Translating Law, 90.

[24] “‘Absolute’ synonyms, if they exist, have meanings identical in all respects and in all contexts,” but the meanings of “‘partial’ synonyms” are identical only in some contexts.  P.H. Matthews, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), s.v. “synonymy.”  Hyponymy — “[t]he relation between two lexical units in which the meaning of the first is included in that of the second” — contrasts with hypernymy, in which the meaning of the second is included in that of the first.  Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, s.v.v. “hypernymy,” “hyponymy.”

Partial synonymy occurs more frequently than absolute or total synonymy and presents particular difficulty in law because many words or lexical units that are synonyms in ordinary language are not always synonyms in legal language:

Entre las clasificaciones que se hacen de los sinónimos, distinguimos, para nuestros fines, la total y la parcial.  La primera . . . no es la más habitual; la segunda . . . es la más frecuente. . . .

El problema que existe con [la sinonimia parcial] es que muchas de estas unidades léxicas que son sinónimas en el lenguaje común . . ., en el jurídico no siempre lo son.

Enrique Alcaraz Varó and Brian Hughes, El Español Jurídico, revised by Adelina Gómez, 2nd ed. (Barcelona: Ariel Derecho, 2009), 97.

[25] The adjectives “legal” and “lawful” count one another among their respective synonyms.  William C. Burton, Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, ed. Brian Burton, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), s.v.v. “lawful,” “legal.”  Although “[i]n many cases it does not seem to make much difference whether we say that a thing is ‘lawful’ or that it is ‘legal,’” the meaning of “lawful” is sometimes more specific than that of “legal.”  Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, Legal Translation Explained, 39.  In his comparison of the adjectives “legal,” “lawful,” and “licit,” Garner noted two important points:

  • “‘Lawful’ and ‘licit’ share with ‘legal’ [the] sense . . . ‘according or not contrary to law; permitted by law.’”
  • “‘Lawful’ should not be used in [the] sense [‘of or pertaining to law; falling within the province of law’].”

Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, s.v. “legal, adj.; lawful; licit” (double quotation marks and italics changed to single quotation marks).

[26] In a modern linguistic sense, the English term “polysemy” refers to “[t]he fact of having several meanings; the possession of multiple meanings” or, more specifically, “[t]he case of a single word having two or more related senses.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “polysemy”; Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, s.v. “polysemy.”  “Some authors,” however, “use the term ‘polysemy’ more generally, to include homonymy.”  Philip Resnick, “Word-Sense Ambiguity,” inFrawley, International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1:365 (double quotation marks changed to single).

Polysemy and homonymy complicate the work of both translators and lexicographers:

Both homonymy and polysemy represent quite a difficult problem in legal translation since the effect of polysemy is in principle the same as that of homonymy – the representation of two or more meanings by a single form thus requiring different equivalents in the target language.  Etymological relations seem to be crucial in dictionary-making as the two types should be distinguished as different headwords (homonyms) or various equivalents of one headword (polysemes).  Traditional understanding of homonymy, as opposed to polysemy, is that homonyms have no common etymological roots or basis whereas polysemes have developed from one common form and acquired different or modified meanings through their devolution.

Marta Chromá, Legal Translation and the Dictionary, Lexicographica: Series Maior (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2004), 33.

[27] “[A]t least seven senses” exist for the English term “common law.”  Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, s.v. “common law . . . as noun — its specific senses.”  In addition, the term appears deceptively similar to the literal meaning of the European term “jus commune.” Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, 110-11.  The possibility for confusion extends to such “venerable translations of ‘common law’ as the Spanish derecho consuetudinario or the French droit coutumier,” which “are misleading since they stress the idea of ‘custom’, thus suggesting a system of laws that are quaint, peculiar and local rather than a set of unwritten rules of universal application.”  Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, Legal Translation Explained, 49-50.

[28] A modern definition of the English term “homonymy” is “[t]he relation between words whose forms are the same but whose meanings are different and cannot be connected.”  Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, s.v. “homonymy.”  The origins of the term “homonym” go back to a Greek word that signified “having the same name.”  Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “homonym.”  The historical senses of “homonym” reflects its Greek roots:

1.       a. The same name or word used to denote different things.  b. [in Philology] Applied to words having the same sound, but differing in meaning : opp. to heteronym and synonym. . . .

2.       A person or thing having the same name as another; a “namesake”.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, 1971 ed. ([New York]: Oxford University Press, 1977), s.v. “homonym” (single quotation marks changed to double; emphasis omitted).

The classification of homonyms presents a number of complications:

“Homonym” can be troublesome because it may refer to three distinct classes of words.  Homonyms may be words with identical pronunciations but different spellings and meanings. . . . Or they may be words with both identical pronunciations and identical spellings but different meanings. . . . Finally, they may be words that are spelled alike but are different in pronunciation and meaning. . . . The first and second types are sometimes called “homophones,” and the second and third types are sometimes called “homographs” — which makes naming the second type a bit confusing.

Mary Wood Cornog, Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder, 2nd ed. (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2010), 59 (italics replaced by double quotation marks).

[29] One sense of the Arabic term mushtarak is “homonym; a technical term which normally refers to a word or phrase imparting more than one meaning.”  Šukrija Husejn Ramić, Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 222.  Other modern senses of mushtarak include “common, joint, combined, concurrent, collective.”  Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, ed. J. Milton Cowan, 3rd ed. (Ithaca: Spoken Language Services, 1976), 469, s.v. “مشترك  muštarak.”

Mushtarak is one form of the Arabic root word sharika, which “with [certain] forms has been used in the Holy Qur’ân about 168 times.”  Abdul Mannân Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Qur’ân,  [2nd ed.]  (Hockessin: Noor Foundation International, 2010), 288-89, s.v. “sharika شرکاً ؛ يَشرِك شَرِكَ.”  The modern senses of the related terms ishtirak and mushtarik include, respectively, “partnership . . .; participation” and “participant; subscriber.”  Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 469, s.v.v. “اشتراك ištirāk,” “مشترك muštarik.”

Lexicographer Edward William Lane offered this explanation of the concept of homonymy in the Arabic language:

الِاشْتِرَاكُ in lexicology signifies The being homonymous ; (literally) the being shared, or participated, in by several meanings : [used as a (substantive), homonymy :] . . . one says of a noun [or word] that is termed مُشْتَرَكٌ . . . [Many meanings share, or participate, in it].

Edward William Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 1541, s.v. “شرك” (brackets and italics in original; parentheses indicate substitutions; references omitted). 

[30] A simple explanation of antonymy is the “[r]elation . . . between words that have opposite meanings.”  Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, s.v. “antonymy.”  “Actually,” however, “there are many different ways in which [lexical] items can be ‘opposite’ in meaning.”  Hurford, “Semantics: Properties and relationships,” 4:11.  The types of opposition include “gradable antonyms,” “non-gradable antonyms” (which are “also called complementary terms”), “converse terms,” and “incompatibility.”  David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 109 (italics omitted).

[31] The complementary antonyms of legal language include those that reflect the conflict between parties, which is fertile ground for reciprocal antonyms such as the pairs demandante and demandado (Spanish), “plaintiff” and “defendant” (English), and demandeur and défendeur (French):

En [los antónimos recíprocos o complementarios, como «deudor y acreedor», «demandante y demandado», etc.,] cada una de las partes es sujeto de su acción y objeto lógico de la del antónimo; y es que el lenguaje jurídico, por ser reflejo del conflicto entre partes, es terreno abonado para los antónimos recíprocos, como demuestran los ejemplos siguientes: . . .

DEMANDANTE (claimant, plaintiff – demandeur) y DEMANDADO (defendant– défendeur).

Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, El español jurídico, 98 (emphasis modified).

[32] Notably, “metaphor is one of the commonest means by which new meanings develop from existing senses.”  A. Cowie, “Lexicology,” in Brown and Allan, Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, 486.  “[T]here are hundreds of metaphors, buried and unburied, in the language of the law,” and “it is quite likely that the same or similar figurative usages will be found in many different languages.”   Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, Legal Translation Explained, 44.  One explanation of metaphorization is that “[o]ne concept is transferred, projected or ‘mapped’ onto another that is in a different conceptual domain but has some resemblance to it.”  E.C. Traugott, “Semantic Change,” in Brown and Allan, Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, 854.

With the passage of time, many metaphors in legal language lose their metaphorical quality and become buried metaphors, which can result in misunderstandings between nonlawyers who are accustomed to the ordinary sense of a term but do not understand the legal sense and lawyers who understand the legal sense but do not recognize the possibility of confusion with the ordinary sense of the term:

Muchas expresiones que en el pasado fueron metáforas, con el tiempo perdieron esta calificación y se convirtieron en metáforas muertas o fosilizadas.  El lenguaje cotidiano está lleno de ellas. . . .

Al matiz jurídico de muchas palabras le ocurre lo mismo. . . .

. . . En [algunos] casos es probable que los no juristas, engañados por la acepción habitual del término, no entiendan bien el sentido, mientras que los profesionales avezados, que sí lo entienden, posiblemente no se den cuenta de que tal uso de la palabra se aparta del empleo «normal».

Alcaraz Varó and Hughes, El español jurídico, 92-93 (internal references omitted).

[33] The character 法 signifies lawin the Chinese (fǎ) and Japanese () languages.  Rick Harbaugh, Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary (n.p.:, [1998]), 126; Andrew Nathaniel Nelson, The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle, 1992), 543.  A literal formula for the modern fǎis “water 氵 + go 去 = law 法.”  Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews, Learning Chinese Characters: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters; HSK Level A (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2007) 71 (internal references omitted).

What indication do we have that fǎis a metaphor?  The senses of fǎinclude “as water goes” and “method” in addition to the sense “law.”  Harbaugh, Chinese Characters, 126.  Although “[t]he origin of the Chinese word ‘law’ (fa) is extremely remote,” the possible explanations include “punishment, ‘leveled as even as water,’” and “placing a criminal on the water to drift away with the current."  Zhiping Liang, “Explicating ‘Law’: A Comparative Perspective of Chinese and Western Legal Culture,” Journal of Chinese Law 3, no. 1 (Summer 1989): 56, 58-59 (double quotation marks changed to single; reference omitted).

[34] In law, “[a] maxim is a traditional legal principle that has been frozen into a concise expression.”  Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, s.v. “maxims.”

[35]Ignoratis terminis artis, ignoratur et ars.”  Bryan A. Garner, ed., “Appendix B: Legal Maxims,” in Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th ed. (St. Paul: West, 2009), 1835.


Title of page Terminology
Address of page
Geographic areas Europe; China
Languages English; French; Latin; Spanish; Chinese; Hebrew; Sanskrit; Greek; Arabic; Japanese
Terms and phrases archaism; neologism; legal terminology; definition; meaning; sense; terminology; synonymy; polysemy; homonymy; antonymy; metaphor; 法; fǎ; mushtarak; مشترك; maxim; legal language; semantic change
Proverbs, maxims, and canons where the terms of an art are unknown, the art is also unknown; ignoratis terminis artis, ignoratur et ars
Metaphors, metonyms, and other figurative expressions Pandora's box; make sense of
Publications Legal Translation Explained; New Approach to Legal Translation; Legal Research Methods in the U.S. and Europe; El espanol juridico; Legal Translation and the Dictionary; Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law
Authors Heikki Mattila; Bryan Garner; David Mellinkoff; Jean Pruvost; Jean-Francois Sablayrolles; Sharron Gu; Agustin Mateos Munoz; Deborah Cao; Peter Tiersma; Edward William Lane; David Crystal; Zhiping Liang
Deities and other sources of divine inspiration, authority, or action Mercury; Epimetheus