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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


an official legal document that says you must come to a court of law to give information

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun and verb subpoena come from a Latin phrase ‘sub poena’ meaning ‘under a penalty’. The noun, which was first used in the 15th century, predates the verb by about 200 years.


The noun and verb subpoena (pronunciation here) are used mainly in American English, the usual UK verb being summons. The UK noun is also summons or more specifically witness summons. There is also a jury summons, which is a court document telling someone they have to do jury service (often called jury duty in the US). Subpoena is one of many current legal terms that are Latin or based closely on Latin. Long after the fall of the Roman empire, Latin continued to be the common language of authority and scholarship throughout much of Europe. As with other fields such as science, medicine, and for a long time religion, legal language continued to be permeated with Latin terms, many of which are still used today. Macmillan Dictionary’s coverage of legal language is comprehensive and still growing, thanks to the input of our consultant Kevin Pike. You can explore foreign legal terminology by clicking on the relevant thesaurus entry, here. If you want to explore legal language further, click on the links in the ‘Explore related meanings box’ on the right of the screen. Or choose another category, such as this one on Law courts, and explore from there.


“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”
(Charles Lamb)

“Laws, like houses, lean on one another.”
(Edmund Burke)

Related words

affidavit, petition, process, summons

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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