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For the common law crowd

Reader John Sparrow took one look at yesterday’s post about Black’s Law Dictionary and shot off a question.

“Do you know if there are similar books for England and/or Australia?” he asked. “If so, could you let us know what they are, please.”

You betcha.

dictionaryAnd — by the way — The Legal Genealogist stresses that all of these dictionaries are useful to everyone from a country with a common law heritage because so much of our legal traditions are shared.

So whether we sing out O Canada or Advance Australia Fair or The Star Spangled Banner, we all look to a time when we were singing God Save the King (or Queen, depending) and a shared legal tradition.

So let’s start by looking at dictionaries that help us with English law and English legal terminology.

And here we have a treasure trove — an online one-stop-shopping location for digitized law dictionaries that I’ve written about before: Georgetown University’s Law Library and its wonderful Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1916 collection.1

Among the offerings of this amazing collection is what may be about the oldest English legal dictionary available:

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).

Another key resource you can find there is a dictionary focused on the legal French terms so often found in older English documents we use in genealogy:

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).

So go ahead and poke around on that site and see what you can find.

But there’s one more legal dictionary we all need to know about and use on a regular basis whenever we’re working in English research, and although there are editions available on the Georgetown site,2 the very oldest versions are readily available at other sites like Google Books. It’s the law dictionary edited and compiled by Giles Jacob (1686-1744), an English legal writer.

His main work — A New Law Dictionary: Containing the Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law; …, Published to this Time — was first published in 1729 and went through five editions before his death. And some of those earliest editions are readily available online:

• The 1729 edition in full text at Google Books.

• The 1729 edition in full text at Hathi Trust.

• The 1739 edition and 1743 edition in full text at Internet Archive.

There are a handful of resources specifically developed for our common law friends Down Under and Up North as well.

For Australian researchers:

Australian Law Dictionary, Trischa Mann and Audrey Blunden, editors, Oxford University Press (2010). Subscription access required.

Butterworths Concise Australian Legal Dictionary, Peter Butt Editor, LexisNexis Publishing, 2011. Generally available through booksellers as well (Amazon has copies now).

Encyclopaedic Australian Legal Dictionary – online, LexisNexis. Subscription access required, not generally available to individuals (see the Ordering tab at page bottom).

And for Canadians:

• “Canadian Law Dictionary,” Begun as a personal website by a Canadian trustee in bankruptcy who wanted to learn about Canadian legal history, CanadianLawSite went live on the Internet in 2007, and has since become one of the biggest commercial law sites in the country. It offers a comprehensive dictionary.

• “Legal Dictionary,” A major Canadian legal reference site by Lloyd Duhaime, “Barrister, Solicitor, Attorney and Lawyer (and Notary Public!)” The law dictionary contains terms both from common law and civil law.

• “Irwin Law’s Canadian Online Legal Dictionary,” A “collaborative dictionary comprised, initially, of terms defined in the glossaries of Canadian law books published by Irwin Law,” to which members of the public can contribute, wiki-style, after registering.

Know of more? Add a comment for the benefits of your fellow researchers!


  1. Judy G. Russell, “A defining moment,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 June 2014 ( : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  2. See this link for the two versions in the collection.
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