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As with the English language, Legal English is a mix of styles, inventions, idioms, phrasal verbs, some fairly antiquated vocabulary and several old languages (some still spoken widely, some not). In this article, we take a look at some facts about law, the English language and the English spoken by lawyers in the UK.
In the 18th century, a clank-napper was a thief who specialized in stealing silverware
In the US, a John Doe is used to describe a man (usually dead) whose identity is unknown. The name originated in the UK but is now rarely used in this country.
In Victorian slang (19th century English), a wipe-hauler was the name used for a thief who stole gentlemen's handkerchiefs.
The concept of 'the reasonable man'
In English law, the reasonable man is used in many areas of law to act as a benchmark of how a typical person would behave in certain circumstances.
A similar term is "the man on the Clapham Omnibus" - Omnibus is an old-fashioned word for bus. The use of the phrase was looked at in a statement from The UK Supreme Court in 2014:
"The Clapham omnibus has many passengers. The most venerable is the reasonable man, who was born during the reign of Victoria but remains in vigorous health. Amongst the other passengers are the right-thinking member of society, familiar from the law of defamation, the officious bystander, the reasonable parent, the reasonable landlord, and the fair-minded and informed observer, all of whom have had season tickets for many years."
Healthcare at Home Limited v. The Common Services Agency  UKSC 49
Latin in Legal English
A considerable number of latin terms are still used in Legal English, particularly in written correspondence and in the courtroom. These include caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") in consumer law, ex gratia (something done voluntarily) and obiter dictum ("said in passing") which is used to describe a statement made by a judge that does not relate directly to a case but which can be used as an authority by later courts.
Legal English UK runs courses in English for law in London, on-line and worldwide. We also run courses in the legal areas of several foreign languages; including Spanish and French. For further information about any of our legal language training courses, please telephone 020 3566 0145, fill in the form on this page or e-mail us.
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