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Say cheese!

C, of course, is “the third letter of the alphabet.” Or it’s the letter Roman jurors used to write on their ballots to signify a guilty verdict (condemno, I condemn). Or it’s an abbreviation of cases, or civil, or circuit, or code, or common, or court, or criminal, or chancellor, or crown.1

So C is for all those great simple plain-English words that absolutely positively do not mean what you’re thinking. Not to the Legal Genealogist and not in the law, they don’t. Nope, nope, nope.

Such as C is for camera. Which doesn’t mean the device you use today for taking pictures.

It may be a “chamber, room, or apartment” and particularly a judge’s chamber, which is why conferences by a judge alone are said to be in camera. It may also mean “a treasury; a chest or coffer” or even “a stipend payable from vassal to lord; an annuity.”2

None of which, of course, will help you in getting that photo.

So… ready with your personal copy of the first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary on CD? Because just as we learned in “A is for alternative meanings3 and in “B is for borg,”4 this third letter of the alphabet gives us more examples of words that have common meanings in our day-to-day language — and very uncommon meanings in the law.

     • A call isn’t something you make on a telephone. In English law, it was when law students were elected to the degree of barrister. And in land law, it’s one of the points of reference in a survey, such as “the white oak” or “the left fork of the stream.”5

     • And if you’re calling upon a prisoner, it’s not visiting day at San Quentin. That’s what the clerk of the court does when there’s a guilty verdict in a criminal case — the clerk asks the prisoner if there’s any reason why judgment shouldn’t be pronounced.6

     A campus isn’t where the local college is; it’s an assembly on a field or plain.7 And campus mail isn’t how your kids gets those packages you send. It’s an “anniversary assembly of the Saxons, held on May-day, when they confederated for the defense of the kingdom against all its enemies.”8

     The word cant isn’t missing an apostrophe and doesn’t mean “can not.” And it doesn’t even mean slang. In the civil law, it’s a “method of dividing property held in common by two or more joint owners.”9

     You can’t wear a cape, and probably shouldn’t wave it at a charging bull. It’s “a judicial writ touching a plea of lands or tenements.”10

     • And though the only time you hear the word cartel these days is in reference to an agreement among the oil-producing countries, in the law it’s either an “agreement between two hostile powers for the delivery of prisoners or deserters” or a “written challenge to fight a duel.”11

     • Carve isn’t a verb and it isn’t something you do to a turkey at Thanksgiving. In old English law, it means plow-land, specifically as much land as a man could plow in a year.12

     • A cattle-gate isn’t how you keep your cows out of your neighbor’s garden. To the contrary, it’s the legal right to put your cattle into your neighbor’s garden. Or at least somewhere on your neighbor’s land. It’s a distinct interest in land, acting as a lease.13

     • A chance-medley might sound very much like somebody else’s random playlist in iTunes, but in the criminal law, it’s a death that occurs when you’re defending yourself.14

     • You can certainly trying busting chops if you’d like, or frying them up and eating them. But in legal-speak, it’s the word for “the mouth of a harbor.”15

     • This one is probably my favorite. Civilization isn’t a computer game or a process of turning savages into decent civilized folks. It’s the legal process by which a criminal case turns into a civil one, such as where a criminal charge of homicide gets changed into an inquest into how the person died.16

     • A clam isn’t something you find in the ocean, and probably wouldn’t taste good fried and served with tartar sauce. In the civil law, it’s an adverb meaning covertly; secretly.17

     • Companions aren’t the folks you hang around with, who go with you to and from places. Nope. In French law, it means all of the people who make up the crew of a ship or vessel. 18

     • A composition isn’t what I’m writing here. In the law, it’s an agreement between somebody who can’t pay his debts and his creditors in which the creditors agree to accept less than what they’re due in return for being paid now.19

     • Confusion may be what you’re suffering while figuring out all these goofy legal definitions, but it won’t help you understand that, in civil law, it’s a method of destroying a debt that’s very similar to the concept of merger in common law: in both cases the debtor becomes the person holding the debt.20

     • Please don’t try to play a cornet. He’d have been a commissioned officer of cavalry in England up until 1871,21 and he might get annoyed.

     • If you try to put a creamer in your hot coffee, he might scream. That’s that the law called a “foreign merchant, generally … one who has a stall in a fair or market.”22

     • And last but not least, considering what we’re all doing at the moment, a cursor isn’t that little thing in the computer that we’re always trying to put in the right place. Instead, it’s “an inferior officer of the papal court.”23


Image: Flomar, Open ClipArt Library

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 162, “C.”
  2. Ibid., 165, “camera.”
  3. Judy G. Russell, “A is for alternative meanings,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Jul 2012 ( : accessed 2 Sep 2012).
  4. Ibid., “B is for borg,” posted 10 Aug 2012.
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 164, “call.”
  6. Ibid., 165, “calling upon the prisoner.”
  7. Ibid., 166, “campus.”
  8. Ibid., “campus mail.”
  9. Ibid., 167, “cant.”
  10. Ibid., 168, “cape.”
  11. Ibid., 175, “cartel.”
  12. Ibid., “carve.”
  13. Ibid., 180, “cattle-gate.”
  14. Ibid., 192, “chance-medley.”
  15. Ibid., 201, “chops.”
  16. Ibid., 209, “civilization.”
  17. Ibid., “clam.”
  18. Ibid., 236, “companions.”
  19. Ibid., 239, “composition.”
  20. Ibid., 251, “confusion.”
  21. Ibid., 277, “cornet.”
  22. Ibid., 299, “creamer.”
  23. Ibid., 311, “cursor.”
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