Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions

If you haven't learned by now, I really enjoy fun and interesting factoids I find in various articles and around the internet.  I have lists of the ones I find on my various websites.  I found this article about where different legal phrases originated and found it interesting so I thought I would share!

Legal Ease
Think blackmail evolved from the actions of a rogue postman?  Think again.  Elizabeth Thornburg, professor of law and co-author of Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions, recounts the intriguing reality behind several age-old expressions.

'Scofflaw' - "In 1924, a Prohibitionish named Delcevare King was in search of a word that carried such a negative connotation that when called it, lawless imbibers would change their ways," says Thornburg.   "So he held a contest.  The winning word, scofflaw, eventually came to refer to someone who habitually broke any law- though the law was typically one that was unpopular with the people.  The term regained popularity in the early 2000s when people were downloading music and movies without paying for them."

'Blackmail' - "Clans routinely battled each other in 16th century Scotland.  There wasn't a lot of law enforcement, so if a marauder said, 'Pay me this money and I'll make sure nobody steals your cattle,' you paid him, especially because the subtext was really, 'Pay me and I won't steal them myself.' The Scottish word for payment was maill, and black referred to the underhanded nature of the exchange, similar to its usage in black market.  Over time, blackmail morphed to mean "pay me or I will reveal  your private information."

'Third Degree' - "In the 1880s, many of the higher-ups in New York City's police force were Freemasons.  The highest degree of initiation is the third degree, a process rumored to involve intense questioning.  One particularly successful NYPD interrogator was a third-degree Mason named Thomas Byrnes.  In one New-York Tribune article from 1883, he coined the phrase when he was quoted as breaking a gang of criminals by giving them 'the third degree."

'Read The Riot Act' - "There really was a Riot Act, and people actually read it.  In an effort to protect King George 1 and the rest of the Hanover dynasty from being overthrown, Parliament established the Riot Act in 1715 to minimize organized revolt.  It stated that any time a group of 12 or more people gathered, an official had to read the Riot Act, which warned them to disperse immediately or else face arrest - or worse, the death penalty.  This law grew into a phrase that involves issuing a stern warning to stop specified minconduct of any kind."

'Boilerplate' - "In the early 19th century, boilerplates were thin plates of steel used to make steam boilers.  As regional newspapers started popping up, news syndicates developed and sold them stories, which were printed on thin sheets of metal that resembled boilerplates.  Because of the medium they came in, editors had to publish the stories as written.  So the term bboilerplate came to refer to any kind of formulaic, unvarying text, often seen in wills, contracts, and other legal documents."

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