Why is legal language so different from ordinary English? Statutes,
opinions, contracts, deeds, and wills profoundly affect our daily lives, but
their language tends to be convoluted, antiquated, and often nearly
impossible for the public to understand. So where did the lessees and
tortfeasors come from, and are they necessarily here to stay?
Peter Tiersma's lively history of legal language slices through the
polysyllabic thicket of legalese. He shows to what extent legalese is simply
a product of its past, when Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, Latin-speaking
missionaries, Scandinavian raiders, and Norman invaders all left their
marks on the language that lawyers use today. Tiersma suggests, however,
that history alone provides an inadequate explanation for the peculiarities
of legal language. He considers how lawyers cling to their
foreign-sounding language because it convinces laypeople that the legal
system is far too complex to navigate without professional assistance.
Obscurity, Tiersma suggests, can also be strategic (as when an insurance
company prints oppressive legal terms in small type on the back of a
policy), as can clarity (if lawyers need to persuade a jury of their client's
innocence, they speak and write with newfound ease). All these issues are
wrapped up in the legal language that continues to evolve and shape our
Legal Language makes for fascinating reading. Its demonstration that
arcane vocabulary is not an inevitable feature of our legal system makes
Tiersma's concluding call for simplification powerful and timely, and it
brings the verbiage of leases, employment agreements, and other consumer
documents out of the shadows.