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The fifth letter

The Legal Genealogist is shocked — shocked! — to report that Black’s Law Dictionary does not define “E” as the fifth letter of the alphabet. Not that we all couldn’t have figured that out by ourselves, mind you, but hey… it defined A through D in terms of their position in the alphabet; so why not this one?

But, alas, we’ll just have to accept that it is the fifth letter, and go on to the fact that it also stands for “’Exchequer,’ ‘English,’ ‘Edward,’ ‘Equity,’ ‘East,’ ‘Eastern,’ ‘Easter,’ or ‘Ecclesiastical.’” And it’s a “Latin preposition, meaning from, out of, after, or according. It occurs in many Latin phrases; but (in this form) only before a consonant. When the initial of the following word is a vowel, ex is used.”1

And, of course (you know this, right? this is nothing new?), E is for Egyptians, a term used in common legal parlance that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the place on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea in which you’ll find the Nile River, the city of Cairo, the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Nope, nope, nope. In the (admittedly biased and narrow-minded) language of the law,

Egyptians, commonly called “Gypsies,” are counterfeit rogues, Welsh or English, that disguise themselves in speech and apparel, and wander up and down the country, pretending to have skill in telling fortunes, and to deceive the common people, but live chiefly by niching and stealing…2

And like the earlier letters of the alphabet,3 E gives us lots of examples of ordinary words that, in legal usage, don’t mean anything like what we might think in day-to-day speech, not to mention some words that simply are a lot of fun. So get out your own personal word-searchable Black’s Law Dictionary on CD and away we go:

     • Ear grass might sound like an interesting euphemism for some hairs growing in places we’d rather they didn’t, but, in English law, it’s “such grass which is upon the land after the mowing, until the feast of the Annunciation after.”4

     • Earnest sounds like it ought to be either a first name or a seriousness about something, but it’s really “payment of a part of the price of goods sold, or the delivery of part of such goods, for the purpose of binding the contract. … A token or pledge passing between the parties, by way of evidence, or ratification of the sale.”5

     • And though you might think egality should be one of the parts of the motto of France (“liberté, égalité, fraternité”), in English it means owelty.6 I know, I know… a fat lot of help that is, isn’t it? Does it help if I mention that owelty means equality?7 And no, I really don’t know why they didn’t just say equality. But hey… lawyers like lots of words.

     • Elder brethren are not the oldest male siblings or first-born sons. If you find an ancestor referred to by that term in England, congratulations. You’ve just found a member of a “distinguished body of men, elected as masters of Trinity House, an institution incorporated in the reign of Henry VIII., charged with numerous important duties relating to the marine, such as the superintendence of light-houses.”8

     • Eleganter doesn’t mean more elegant, which sounds better used that way anyhow. Nope, in the civil law, it means “accurately; with discrimination.”9

     • I don’t know about you, but I always figured an elopement was a cheap way of getting married without the in-laws tagging along and cadging a free meal. In the law, it’s a bit different: it’s when a married woman takes off with another man, leaving hubby (and most likely a houseful of kids) behind.10

     • Empannel is a word you see a lot — and that’s misused a lot — in connection with jury selection. When you empannel a jury, historically it wasn’t when the jury was chosen and seated. Instead, it was “the writing or entering by the sheriff, on a parchment schedule or roll of paper, the names of a jury summoned by him.”11

     • That book you read, that movie you saw — each of those might have been engrossing, but that’s not what the law means by the word. Instead, it was trying to corner the market on corn or some other necessary foodstuff with the aim of gouging the buyers — and it was a crime.12

     • Errant doesn’t mean straying from the straight and narrow as in that errant child of yours. It’s a term applied to judges and bailiffs who rode circuit — and means “wandering” or “itinerant.”13

     • Evenings do not follow afternoons, nor do they precede nights. In old English law, it was “the delivery at even or night of a certain portion of grass, or corn, etc., to a customary tenant, who performs the service of cutting, mowing, or reaping for his lord, given him as a gratuity or encouragement.”14

     • Extraneus isn’t missing an o in the middle of those vowels. In legal parlance, it’s simply somebody who’s foreign born. In the Roman law, it meant “an heir not born in the family of the testator.”15

     • And with my usual preference for small words, I think my favorite this time is probably ey, another word that’s not missing a vowel, and which means “a watery place.”16


Image: Open Clip Art Library, user Selanit.

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 440, “E.”
  2. Ibid., 410, “Egyptians.”
  3. See Judy G. Russell, “A is for alternative meanings,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Jul 2012 ( : accessed 26 Sep 2012). Also, ibid., “B is for borg,” posted 10 Aug 2012; “C is for camera,” posted 3 Sep 2012; “D is for durante,” posted 17 Sep 2012.
  4. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 404, “ear grass.” And yes, actually, I did try to find out why this was important, and my final answer is: Beats the heck outta me. Anybody got any info on this??
  5. Ibid., 405, “earnest.”
  6. Ibid., 410, “egality.”
  7. Ibid., 861, “owelty.”
  8. Ibid., 411, “elder brethren.”
  9. Ibid., 413, “eleganter.”
  10. Ibid., 414, “elopement.”
  11. Ibid., 417, “empannel.”
  12. Ibid., 421, “engrossing.”
  13. Ibid., 430, “errant.”
  14. Ibid., 440, “evenings.”
  15. Ibid., 466, “extraneus.”
  16. Ibid., 467, “ey.”
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