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Macmillan Dictionary lays down the law

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© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesOur first guest post of the new year is by Kevin Pike, who lectures on English for Special Purposes in the field of law at Erlangen University in Germany. Kevin contributed over 500 new and revised legal terms to the latest update of Macmillan Dictionary.

It should be immediately obvious to anyone reading this post that ‘legal’ English does not allude in any way to there being a concept of ‘illegal’ English which, as far as I am aware, does not exist. It refers, of course, to the specialized terminology from the field of law.

My current convictions (and not merely my previous ones) with regard to legal lexis in learner’s dictionaries are firmly entrenched in the belief that in modern-day reference resources there is ample space to include as much of the terminology of specialist subjects as people working in those fields need to know.

As a passionate lexicographer and a law bore myself, and as a reasonable person (but not the reasonable person), I embarked on a PhD project at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, where I am a lecturer for English for Special Purposes in the field of law, to undertake a just enrichment (and not an unjust enrichment) of the Macmillan Dictionary’s legal terminology. It soon became clear to me that although the Macmillan Dictionary already covered basic legal terms rather well, there were numerous omissions which, I humbly submit, M’Lud, needed remedying.

Using a corpus of legal texts containing two million words, I compiled a list of the most useful and frequent terms which the dictionary should include. These terms were then defined, and provided with authentic example sentences taken from my legal English corpus. In addition to that, many of the dictionary’s existing entries for legal terms were improved, with more accurate definitions, new example sentences and collocations, and sometimes new senses too.

In all, over 400 completely new legal English terms have been added to the dictionary, and 140 existing legal entries have been improved and expanded upon. Following this update, the Macmillan Dictionary now includes almost 800 items of legal terminology, explained in plain English and supported by authentic corpus examples.

So what were the most salient additions and supplementations?

Crying W(o)olf
In England & Wales in 1998, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, was asked to look at the state of the court procedures involved in civil litigation. He not only proposed a number of wide-reaching procedural law reforms, but also a few linguistic changes to make access to the civil courts more accessible and to make the terminology more comprehensible. As such, a plaintiff (which was arguably not that difficult to understand anyway) is now referred to as a claimant. However, other, far less transparent terms such as interlocutory, Mareva injunction and Anton Piller injunction were all substituted by far more comprehensible terms, as their respective dictionary entries reveal.

Latin lovers
Although there has been a concerted effort to rid the legal profession of Latin terms, there are, it can be argued, terms which simply do not allow for this. My ratio decidendi for including a substantial number of Latin terms in the Macmillan Dictionary is based upon their frequent usage and the fact that they convey complex meanings in short expressions. For example, if lawyers in a negligence case were to state res ipsa loquitor, everyone involved in the case would know immediately that this explains the legal notion that the loss or injury suffered by the claimant must have been caused as a result of the defendant’s negligence as there is no other plausible or logical explanation for it. Thus, the Latin explains not only a phrase but an entire concept succinctly and accurately. I could not possibly comment, Your Honour, on whether I was right to include such terms as the principle of nemo iudex in causa sua clearly estops me from doing so. I do, however, know that I am not acting ultra vires and I firmly stand by my decision; stare decisis.

Keeping pace – or PACE – with legal acronyms and abbreviations
Would you be able to distinguish your ICC from your ICJ and your ICTY in the Hague? Would you be expect to see the LCJ at the RCJ or vice versa? What would you do if someone recommended you consider ADR? In which situations are EWHC, EWCA and UKSC used? The use of abbreviations in legal English is not necessarily more frequent than in other specialist fields; however, including the most commonly abbreviated terms seemed to be appropriate as part of this release.

My summing-up
In summing up, my learned friends, I submit that it is worthwhile taking the time to stop and search for the new legal terms in the Macmillan Dictionary and I would request you to peruse at your leisure. In essence, I am, I guess, making you an invitation to treat yourselves. On the balance of probabilities I am satisfied that all these new terms are indeed essential additions to the dictionary. I only hope this short post enlightens and inspires you and is not merely treated as obiter dictum or, even worse, seen purely as a string of consecutive sentences into which I am attempting to cram as many of these legal terms as possible. What I do hope is that this project sets a persuasive precedent for future Macmillan Dictionary updates. I rest my case.

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Kevin Pike

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