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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

H is for Henry.

Seriously. That’s what Black’s Law Dictionary says. “This letter, as an abbreviation, stands for Henry (a king of that name) in the citation of English statutes.”1

It doesn’t of course, say which Henry (it charged with the number following the name). So The Legal Genealogist picked one — the most obscure Henry around.

Not Henry I (1068-1135, reign 1100-1135). He was a “harsh but effective” ruler probably best known for plunging England into anarchy by naming (gasp) a woman — his daughter Matilda — as heir presumptive. (It didn’t work — her cousin Stephen of Blois seized the throne.)2

Not Henry II (1133-1189, reign 1154–1189), known as Henry Curtmantle, the “energetic and competent” king who got into a pissing contest with his friend Thomas Becket and then with his own son Henry (the Young King, who never actually ruled).3

Not Henry IV (1367-1413, reign 1399-1413), who seized power from Richard II, displaced the next in line Edmund Mortimer, put down a ton of rebellions and held James I of Scotland as a prisoner.4

Can’t be Henry V (1386-1422, reign 1413–1422), who was competent, effective at home and abroad, and came within a whisker of capturing all of France.5

Not Henry VI (1421-1471), either, since he had the distinction of reigning twice (1422-1461), being deposed by Edward IV, reigning a second time (1461-1470), and ending up dying in the Tower of London. Oh, and being a bit crazy too.6

Can’t possibly be Henry VII (1457-1509, reign 1485-1509) — he’s the one who killed Richard III7 — and it’s a sure bet nobody would use the word “obscure” to describe the last Henry, he of the “how many wives did he kill off anyway?,” Henry VIII (1491-1547, reign 1509-1547) 8

So for sheer boredom, let’s go with Henry III (1207-1272, reign 1216-1272), whose claim to fame is that he was weak and vacillating and was reduced to a figurehead by the barons.9

Then again if you’d rather add a second letter to the H, there are all kinds of things you can do with the letter H. H.A. for “hoc anno, this year, in this year.”10 H.C. for House of Commons or habeas corpus.11 H.R. for House of Representatives.12

Don’t like those? Well, then, consider that, like its cousins earlier in the alphabet,13 the letter H gives us lots of examples of ordinary words that, in legal usage, don’t mean what we might think they do. So let’s hop to it, haul out our personal word-searchable Black’s Law Dictionary on CD and hurry on through the letter H.

     • In general, a hacienda isn’t where Zorro lives. In Spanish law, it’s the “public domain; the royal estate; the aggregate wealth of the state.”14

     • You might figure that haga is what the Scots make haggis out of.15 Nope. It’s a “house in a city or borough.”16

     • Handsel is not Gretel’s big brother with an extra letter floating around. It’s “earnest money” to seal the deal in a handshake agreement.17

     • A harbinger isn’t foreshadowing things to come. In England, it was “an officer of the royal household.”18

     • You wouldn’t put a harness on a horse — or at least not very much of it. The term meant “all warlike instruments; also the tackle or furniture of a ship.”19

     • And for hat money, you wouldn’t get your choice of Stetson or beret. That, in maritime law, was “a small duty paid to the captain and mariners of a ship.”20

     • A “haw” isn’t a fruit of the hawthorn or even a verb meaning to fumble in speaking. It was a “small parcel of land in Kent.”21

     • A hazard isn’t something to be avoided, at least not exactly. You’d just want to avoid getting caught at this “unlawful game at dice.”22

     • Your heritage has nothing to do with your family or where you’re from or your culture. Nope. In the civil law, it was “every species of immovable which can be the subject of property; such as lands, houses, orchards, woods, marshes, ponds, etc., in whatever mode they may have been acquired, either by descent or purchase.” And in Scottish law, it was “land, and all property connected with land; real estate, as distinguished from movables, or personal estate.”23

     • Hide isn’t something you do to avoid the tax man, or something you tan and make into leather. In old English law, it was “a measure of land, being as much as could be worked with one plow. It is variously estimated at from 60 to 100 acres, but was probably determined by local usage. Another meaning was as much land as would support one family or the dwellers in a mansion-house. Also a house; a dwelling-house.”24

     • Hilary rules weren’t followed in the State Department and the Hilary term wasn’t the four years she served as Secretary of State. The rules were “a collection of orders and forms extensively modifying the pleading and practice in the English superior courts of common law, established in Hilary term, 1834.” And the term, in English law, was “a term of court, beginning on the 11th and ending on the 31st of January in each year.”25

     • Hope isn’t how you might fervently wish this list would end, but, in “old English law, a valley.”26

     • Hurdle might be something a condemned prisoner might have wanted to do, but as a noun it was a “kind of sledge, on which convicted felons were drawn to the place of execution.”27

And for all you doubters out there, I can assure you, there really was a hell. It was the name given to a place under the exchequer chamber, where the king’s debtors were confined.28

Aw, heck29


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 554, “H.”
  2. Wikipedia (, “Henry I of England,” rev. 4 Mar 2013.
  3. Ibid., “Henry II of England,” rev. 3 Mar 2013.
  4. Ibid., “Henry IV of England,” rev. 28 Feb 2013.
  5. Ibid., “Henry V of England,” rev. 4 Mar 2013.
  6. Ibid., “Henry VI of England,” rev. 3 Mar 2013.
  7. Ibid., “Henry VII of England,” rev. 4 Mar 2013.
  8. Ibid., “Henry VIII of England,” rev. 3 Mar 2013.
  9. Ibid., “Henry III of England,” rev. 4 Mar 2013.
  10. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 554, “H.C.”
  11. Ibid., “H.C.”
  12. Ibid., “H.R.”
  13. 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; “E is for Egyptians,” posted 27 Sep 2012; “F is for faggot,” posted 27 Dec 2012; “G is for gavel,” posted 12 Feb 2013.
  14. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 556, “hacienda.”
  15. Trust me, you don’t want to know what the Scots make haggis out of.
  16. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 559, “haga.”
  17. Ibid., 561, “handsel.”
  18. Ibid., 562, “harbinger.”
  19. Ibid., “harness.”
  20. Ibid., “harness.”
  21. Ibid., 563, “haw.”
  22. Ibid., “hazard.”
  23. Ibid., 570, “heritage.”
  24. Ibid., 570-571, “hide.”
  25. Ibid., 573, “Hilary rules,” “Hilary term.”
  26. Ibid., 580, “hope.”
  27. Ibid., 584, “hurdle.”
  28. Ibid., 567, “hell.”
  29. Ibid., 565, “heck” (“an engine to take fish in the river Ouse”).
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