Early in my 1L year, a professor told us that you had to get a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary because every lawyer will have their law-school copy in their office for the rest of their career as some sort of bookshelf trophy. That may be one reason to get a Black’s Law Dictionary, but I have found actually using the dictionary has been very helpful in law school and beyond. Even though it is tempting to Google a legal term of art or Latin legal phrase – requiring a distracting search through two or three webpages – turning to Black’s Law first will give you a concise, authoritative definition every time. Some may prefer a pocket edition or the app, but for me, I still prefer the complete, hardbound, more than 50,000 term edition. Aside from being a great research tool and invaluable reference, there is another benefit to using the 2054 page version – the amazing legal terms you find by accident. Here are my top 10 unexpected legal terms you will find inside the august Black’s Law Dictionary:
This term was derived from “[t]he annual rent paid by tenants of the manor of Bradford, in the county of Wiltshire, in lieu of veal formerly paid in kind.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1788 (10th ed. 2014). Likewise, “wood-corn” is defined as a historic measure of the “quantity of oats or grain paid … to a lord for the privilege of picking up dead or broken wood.” Id. at 1840. Although substantively unrelated, but equally English, you can also find the definition of chimney or hearth money—this refers to a tax levied on English fireplaces in 1662. Id. at 838-39.
2. Chinese Wall
More commonly known as an “ethical wall” or “firewall,” this term refers to “[a] screening mechanism maintained by an organization, esp. a law firm, to protect client confidences from improper disclosure to lawyers or staff who are not involved in a particular representation.” Id. at 670 (defined under “Ethical wall”).
3. Churn, Burn, and Bury
Collectively defined as a single verb, “churn, burn, and bury” refers to a stockbroker making “numerous risky trades in (an account) and, as a result, squander[ing] the customer’s money.” Id. at 295.
4. Veggie-libel Law
This term is the more creative term for an agricultural-disparagement law: “A statute designed to protect food producers from and provide remedies for pecuniary harm resulting from false and malicious reports of food contamination.” Id. at 83 (defined under “agricultural-disparagement law”).
5. Damn-fool Doctrine
This insurance law doctrine provides that an insurer may deny coverage “when an insured engages in behavior so ill-conceived that the insurer should not be compelled to bear the loss….” Id. at 475.
This term describes the “illegal practice of inserting paper money into a vending machine, then pulling the money out again … thereby retaining the cash and unlawfully obtaining merchandise.” Id. at 1852. Luckily, Black’s Law goes on to explain that although a common problem in the 1980s and 1990s, vending technology has developed to prevent the practice. See id.
Black’s Law is all about precision. If you would like the legal definition of man’s best friend, it read’s “[t]he common domesticated animal having four legs, fur, and a tail, and frequently kept as a pet …” Id. at 589. Beyond the common definition, the entry lists 18 specific types of dogs (e.g., arson dog, police dog, service dog) and 3 slang usages. Id.
Although designated slang, this criminal law term refers to “[a] crime that can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.” Id. at 1840. However, another W-word that you might not expect to find in Black’s Law that does not carry the slang pejorative is “whopper,” which is defined as “a blatant lie; a grossly exaggerated falsehood.” Id. at 1832.
9. Logic Bomb
This term may be familiar to the more tech savvy, but a logic bomb is a “destructive or disruptive computer software that is planted on a computer, server, or network and waits until a certain time to activate itself.” Id. at 1084.
Zombie is defined independently as “[r]emaining in effect or being revived despite circumstances that should have led to extinguishment.” Id. at 1855. But you can also find more specific applications of the term such as “zombie debt” (Id. at 489), “zombie mortgage” (Id. at 1166), and “zombie title” (Id. at 1714).
While the terms selected were a cut-above, honorable mentions go to “Lollipop syndrome” (Id. at 1084),“love day” (Id. at 480),“Wolf’s head” (Id. at 1840),“Dairy Queen rule” (Id. at 471), and “baby DWI” (Id. at 603). So the next time your legal research leads you to hunting down a specific term in Black’s Law, keep your eye out for the unexpected. You just never know what you will find.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.