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Digitizing law dictionaries

The Legal Genealogist‘s absolute all-time favorite law-related blog is In Custodia Legis, the blog of the Law Library of Congress.

LawDictsIts content is an eclectic mix, with reports on upcoming legal presentations or conferences, a regular pictures of the week feature (the latest was about the King John seal), interviews with the many and varied people who use or work at the library, from former members of Congress to current interns, and more.

It’s so much my favorite law blog (and I am so much of a law geek) that I freely admit that one of the highpoints of my blogging career was having a post of mine cited in In Custodia Legis — it was a link to a 2012 post about Henry Campbell Black, editor and compiler of Black’s Law Dictionary.1

And when you combine my favorite law dictionaries with my favorite law blog?


And that happened last week, when In Custodia Legis reported a development that we as genealogists should welcome with open arms: an initiative by the Georgetown University Law Library in Washington, D.C., to digitize its law dictionaries collection, adding a wide variety of new resources to our digital bookshelves when we need more help understanding just what some pesky legal record really means.

The author of the post, Anne Guha, a summer intern at the Law Library, wrote:

Recently, while conducting research in the course of my studies, I learned of a project currently underway at the Georgetown Law Library to digitize their collection of early legal dictionaries. This will facilitate the entry of these rare editions into the public domain and make them virtually accessible.

The project is on-going, but the collection titled Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1891, already offers digitized copies of almost 40 early dictionaries. … Georgetown Law Library currently plans to scan a total of 87 titles, comprising over 120 volumes. Chronologically, the completed collection will begin with Georgetown Law Library’s 1481 Jodocus Vocabularius–held to be the first printed legal dictionary–and will run through 1891, the year of the first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. The collection will primarily include English language dictionaries, along with a few non-English European titles. Each dictionary will be divided into a set of color PDFs, which can be downloaded or accessed online in an embedded document viewer.3

Heading over to the Georgetown Law Library site, you can find the Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1916 collection at this link. The Library says — in fancy language — what I keep saying: when we’re stumped by what something means, it helps to have a dictionary that was in use as close to the time when the record was created as possible.

Here’s a small sampling of what the collection includes now — and check back periodically, because there are many more to come:

1607: John Cowell, Interpreter, or Booke containing the signification of words : Wherein is set foorth the true meaning of all, or the most part of such words and termes, as are mentioned in the lawe writers, or statutes of this victorious and renowned kingdome, requiring any exposition or interpretation (Cambridge : Printed by John Legate, 1607).

1641: Sir John Skene, De verborum significatione : the exposition of the termes and difficill wordes, conteined in the foure buiks of Regiam Maiestatem, and uthers, in the acts of Parliament, infeftments, and used in practicque of this realme, and with divers rules, and common places, or principals of the lawes (London : Printed by E.G., 1641).

1779: Robert Kelham, Dictionary of the Norman or Old French language: collected from such Acts of Parliament, Parliament rolls, journals, Acts of state, records, law books, antient historians, and manuscripts as related to this nation… (London : Printed for Edward Brooke, 1779).

1824: John Henry Adlington, Cyclopaedia of law Or, the correct British lawyer (London : Thomas Kelly, 1824).

1879: Andrew Wright, (Glossary from) Court-hand restored : or, The student’s assistant in reading old deeds, charters, records, etc… (London : Reeves & Turner, 1879).

1916: James A. Ballentine, Law Dictionary of Words, Terms, Abbreviations and Phrases Which are Peculiar to the Law (San Francisco : Bancroft-Whitney Co., 1916).

So go ahead. Let your inner legal geek out … and geek out in the law dictionaries.


  1. Clare Feikert-Ahalt, “Legal Curiosities: What I Am,” In Custodia Legis, posted 2 May 2012 ( : accessed 29 June 2014), citing Judy G. Russell, “Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012.
  2. I told you I’m a geek. What? You didn’t believe me? Geez
  3. Anne Guha, guest poster, “Georgetown Law Library’s Digital Dictionaries Collection,” In Custodia Legis, posted 2 May 2012 ( : accessed 29 June 2014).
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