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B is for…

Yep, you’re right, no doubt about it: B is the “second letter of the English alphabet; … used to denote the second of a series of pages, notes, etc.”1

And B is for borg.


The Legal Genealogist wouldn’t kid you. Well, not about that, at any rate. It really is for borg.

Not quite the borg you might be thinking of. Not a race of cybernetic beings, or cyborgs, from the Delta Quadrant.2

Which is unfortunate, since it’d be a lot more fun — but if you’ll pull out your own personal copy of the first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary on CD, you’ll find that a borg, in Saxon law, was a “pledge, pledge giver, or surety. The name given among the Saxons to the head of each family composing a tithing or decennary, each being the pledge for the good conduct of the others. Also the contract or engagement of suretyship; and the pledge given.”3

Just as we saw in A is for alternative meanings,4 the second letter of the alphabet also gives us plenty of examples of words that have common meanings in our day-to-day language … and very uncommon meanings in the law.

     • Think you know what a backside is? Nope, nope, nope. It’s an old term “formerly used in conveyances and also in pleading; it imports a yard at the back part of or behind a house, and belonging thereto.”5

     • Backwards may mean toward the back or in a reverse direction sometimes, but in a policy of marine insurance, it can mean “from port to port in the course of the voyage, and not merely from one terminus to the other and back.”6

     • A badger isn’t an animal. In old English law, it meant someone “who made a practice of buying corn or victuals in one place, and carrying them to another to sell and make profit by them.”7

     • Banality has nothing to do with being commonplace. In Canadian law, it’s the “right by virtue of which a lord subjects his vassals to grind at his mill, bake at his oven, etc.”8

     • A banyan isn’t a fig tree. In East Indian law, it’s a “merchant or shop-keeper” and the “word is used in Bengal to denote the native who manages the money concerns of a European, and sometimes serves him as an interpreter.”9

     • A bar isn’t where we’d both like to adjourn after a hard day at work, but rather a “partition or railing running across a court-room, intended to separate the general public from the space occupied by the judges, counsel, jury, and others concerned in the trial of a cause.”10

     • A basilica isn’t a great big building used as an early Christian church. It’s “a compilation of Roman and Greek law, prepared about A. D. 880 by the Emperor Basilius, and published by his successor, Leo the Philosopher. It was written in Greek, was mainly an abridgment of Justinian’s Corpus Juris, and comprised sixty books, only a portion of which are extant. It remained the law of the Eastern Empire until the fall of Constantinople, in 1453.”11

     • A berry isn’t something you eat. Also spelled “bury,” it’s a “villa or seat of habitation of a nobleman; a dwelling or mansion house; a sanctuary.”12

     • The word bi-scot has nothing whatsoever to do with the sexual orientation of people who live north of Hadrian’s Wall. In old English law, it was a “fine imposed for not repairing banks, ditches, and causeways.”13

     • And whatever you’re thinking, that’s not what bissextile means. It’s the “day which is added every fourth year to the month of February, in order to make the year agree with the course of the sun.” In other words, it’s Leap Day.14

     • Blinks isn’t the present tense of the verb for something you do with your eyes. In old English law, it meant “boughs broken down from trees and thrown in a way where deer are likely to pass.”15

     • A bum-bailiff wasn’t an incompetent court officer. It was a “person employed to dun one for a debt; a bailiff employed to arrest a debtor.”)16

     • And butts have nothing to do with backsides. In old English law, they were “short pieces of land left unplowed at the ends of fields, where the plow was turned about, (otherwise called “headlands,”) as sidelings were similar unplowed pieces on the sides” or a “place where bowmen meet to shoot at a mark.”17

Those are the kinds of words that B in the law is for. And, of course, B is also for the first part of B.C., which can be “before Christ,” but in the records we use day in and day out as genealogists is as likely to mean “bail court” or “bankruptcy cases.”18

And it’s also for the first part of B.S. which, alas, stands for “Bancus Superior, that is, upper bench,”19 and not the other term I for one am rather fond of using.

Particularly to describe the state of affairs where borg doesn’t mean a race of cybernetic beings, or cyborgs, from the Delta Quadrant.

Resistance is futile.


Image: Open Clip Art Library

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 112, “B.”
  2. Wikipedia (, “Borg (Star Trek),” rev. 24 Jul 2012.
  3. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 147, “borg.”
  4. Judy G. Russell, “A is for alternative meanings,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Jul 2012 ( : accessed 9 Aug 2012).
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 112, “backside.”
  6. Ibid., “backwards.”
  7. Ibid., 113, “badger.”
  8. Ibid., 117, “banality.”
  9. Ibid., 120, “banyan.”
  10. Ibid., “bar.”
  11. Ibid., 123, “basilica.”
  12. Ibid., 130, “berry.”
  13. Ibid., 138, “bi-scot.”
  14. Ibid., “bissextile.”
  15. Ibid., 141, “blinks.” And no, actually, I have no clue why anyone would do that. Maybe to make them easier to hear and so to hunt?
  16. Ibid., 157, “bum-bailiff.”
  17. Ibid., 160, “butts.”
  18. Ibid., 112, “B.C.”
  19. Ibid., “B.S.”
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