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The seventh letter

It is.


G is for gavel. I wouldn’t kid you. (Not about that, at least.)

The only problem is, it’s not that kind of gavel at all.

Nope, despite the fact that this image here is probably associated as much in our minds with judges and the law as any other image that might come to mind, a gavel in the law isn’t that at all.

A legal gavel is a “custom; tribute; toll; yearly rent; payment of revenue” and you’d pay it in corn, or malt, or oats, or fodder.1

Yep. Like its kinfolk earlier in the alphabet,2 the letter G gives us lots of examples of ordinary words that, in legal usage, don’t mean what we might think they do.

So, once more, let’s haul out our personal word-searchable Black’s Law Dictionary on CD and take a gander3 through the letter G, which, for some odd reason, tended to be used instead of the letter W in legal French — “ ‘gage’ for ‘wage,’ ‘garranty’ for ‘warranty.’ ”4

     • No matter how you spell it, a gabel isn’t green and Anne didn’t have any. In the law it was “an excise; a tax on movables; a rent, custom, or service.”5

     • And gage isn’t a misspelling of “gauge” and it doesn’t have anything to do with measurement. It was “a pawn or pledge; something deposited as security for the performance of some act or the payment of money, and to be forfeited on failure or non-performance.” And, by the way, it’s at the root of the term mortgage (“a dead-gage or pledge; for, whatsoever profit it yields, it redeems not itself, unless the whole amount secured is paid at the appointed time”).6

     • The wind has nothing to do with a gale, which was the payment of a rent, tax, duty, or annuity or the right to open and work a mine within the Hundred of St. Briavel’s, or a stone quarry within the open lands of the Forest of Dean — wherever those were.7

     • You didn’t garble something by mixing it up — you garbled things when you went “to sort or cull out the good from the bad in spices, drugs, etc.”8

     • Garnish was — of all things –“ money paid by a prisoner to his fellow-prisoners on his entrance into prison.”9

     • And geld wasn’t a word that makes most grown men grimace, whimper and hold their hands in the general vicinity of particular parts of their anatomy. It was “money or tribute… compensation, value, price.”10

     • German wasn’t a description of your national origin. Instead, it’s a word genealogists really should know. It means “whole, full, or own, in respect to relationship or descent. Brothers-german, as opposed to half-brothers, are those who have both the same father and mother. Cousins-german are ‘first’ cousins; that is, children of brothers or sisters.”11

     • A gladiolus is not something you’d plant in your garden. It was a “little sword or dagger; … An ancient emblem of defense.”12

     • Glass-men aren’t chess pieces made out of glass. It was a statutory English term for “wandering rogues or vagrants.”13

     • Golda wasn’t the first name of an Israeli prime minister, but rather “a mine, a sink of passage for water.”14

     • Gore doesn’t go with “blood” or “guts.” It was just “a small, narrow slip of ground.”15

     • A grass hearth wasn’t some inventor’s very very very bad (and short-lived) idea for fireplace design. It was “the grazing or turning up the earth with a plow; the name of a customary service for interior tenants to bring their plows, and do one day’s work for their lords.”16

     • And, as usual, a short pithy term for my favorite: goat. Now I mean, really, my family name translates as goatherd, for cryin’ out loud. I ought to know goats. But this isn’t that kind of goat, either. It was “a contrivance or structure for draining waters out of the land into the sea.” And also spelled “gote.”17

The things you learn in a law dictionary…


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 532, “gavel.”
  2. 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.
  3. Which, by the way, isn’t a defined legal term at all, but means “look or glance.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 11 Feb 2013), “gander” (definition 2).
  4. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 529, “G.”
  5. Ibid., “gabel.”
  6. Ibid., “gage.”
  7. Ibid., “gale.”
  8. Ibid., 531, “garble.”
  9. Ibid., “garnish.”
  10. Ibid., 533, “geld.”
  11. Ibid., 538, “German.”
  12. Ibid., 540, “gladiolus.”
  13. Ibid., 541, “glass-men.”
  14. Ibid., 542, “golda.”
  15. Ibid., 544, “gore.”
  16. Ibid., 547, “grass hearth.”
  17. Ibid., 542, “goat.”
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