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Best for genealogy

Reader Pam Anderson had a great question after trying — and failing — to find a truly archaic legal term in her pocket copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.

“On the Black’s Law Dictionary,” she asked, “any recommendations as to which edition for genealogy?”

Oh, boy, does The Legal Genealogist have an answer to that!

And — for once — it’s not “it depends.”

Blacks.4thFirst off, a brief explanation of this tome.

Black’s Law Dictionary has been around since it was first published in 1891 by Henry Campbell Black, then a 31-year-old New York-born-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar who only ever briefly practiced law.1

It’s a comprehensive dictionary of legal terms that’s been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 261 cases, the first time in 1901 for its definition of “common law.”2 I wouldn’t even try to guess how many times it’s been cited in American courts overall — in just my own state of New Jersey, I found 874 cases.3

Many of the terms it defines are critical to the records we work with day in and day out as genealogists. Let me put it this way: if a legal term you’re trying to figure out isn’t in Black’s, then it’s probably spelled wrong. But, as Pam found out, the question sometimes is — in which version will you find it?

Black himself authored the first4 and second editions5 of Black’s Law Dictionary. With a new version published just last year, it’s now in its tenth edition.6

The problem is that — at a particular point in the history of this wonderful dictionary — the editors and publishers decided that nobody was really interested in those old, archaic legal terms any more, and that they could make room for new terms and concepts coming into the law by simply leaving them out. I mean, really, who needs to know, today, what a “childwit” was anyway?7

That breaking point for the oldest legal terms was after the Fourth Edition. There were at least three printings of the Fourth Edition — in 1951, 1957 and 1968 — each with 1882 main pages and a varying amount of preamble material. It’s sometimes called the Fourth Edition, sometimes the Fourth Edition Revised, sometimes the Fourth Edition Deluxe or even the Fourth Edition Revised Deluxe. But that edition, with its 1882 pages, is the last edition with all the terms we want. The Fifth Edition, published in 1979, is a fundamentally different publication — and not suited for our purposes.

If you absolutely positively have to have a physical book version of a dictionary, this Fourth Edition is the last one to try to find — and it won’t come cheap. Amazon has some copies in its marketplace from third party sellers; the cheapest version this morning is $73.01. There was one on eBay where the auction won’t close for another five days, and bidding was already at $50 — or you could buy a second one for a flat $255.

I personally recommend that genealogists buy and use the first version, published in 1891. It’s the one written closest to the time that the records we usually work with were created, so the language will be closest to what the record-creator meant. Again, if you just have to have a physical copy, you can have your very own copy of a reprint in hardback from Amazon. It’s only $195 new — or you can save a whole $2 by buying it used (for $193).

Or you can do what I did. I bought the CD version from Archives CD Books USA. For $29.95, you get both the first edition (1891) and second edition (1910), fully word searchable. Best buy you’ll ever make.

And if you absolutely can’t scrounge up the money right now, you can find this dictionary online. HathiTrust has the 1891 edition, albeit in a form that’s not the easiest to use, while Internet Archive and Google Books have the 1910 (second) edition free.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 23 Mar 2015).
  2. Western Union Tel. Co. v. Call Publishing Co., 181 U.S. 92, 102 (1901).
  3. The most recent citation was in State v. Sumulikoski, __ N.J. __ (slip op., 18 March 2015) (per curiam); Rutgers-Camden Law Library, New Jersey Court Resources ( : accessed 23 Mar 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891).
  5. Black, A Law Dictionary, 2d ed. (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1910).
  6. Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, 10th ed. (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 2014).
  7. Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 200, “childwit” (“The right which a lord had of taking a fine of his bondwoman gotten with child without his license”).
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