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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

What a difference a letter makes.

Basic CMYKSo The Legal Genealogist is off again this week, at yet another summer camp for genealogists. This time, it’s the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh and a new course on the hidden members of our families called Women and Children First! Research Methods for the Hidden Members of the Family.1

Which, of course, means that the blog will be a bit sparse this week, focusing again on terms — words and phrases — we may come across in legal documents that don’t always mean what we think they mean.

Words where meanings may even change, perhaps unexpectedly, if we don’t pay very close attention.

Case in point: a word that will get you sued for libel if you say it about one person, but that means something else altogether if just one letter is changed.

Think for a moment of a villain.

A bad guy, right?

The word, in the law, is “an opprobrious epithet, implying great moral delinquency, and equivalent to knave, rascal, or scoundrel.”2

It’s such a bad thing to call someone else that, the law dictionary tells us, “The word is libelous.”3 And that, in case you’ve forgotten, means defamatory — a libel is “a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print or writing or pictures or signs, tending to injure the reputation of an individual, and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”4

Now just change one letter.

Think for a moment of a villein.

That’s not a bad guy at all… or at least he wasn’t, under old English law. What he was, was probably an ancestor (at least if you’re like me, from pure peasant stock, and worse).

A villein was a “person attached to a manor, who was substantially in the condition of a slave, who performed the base and servile work upon the manor for the lord, and was, in most respects, a subject of property and belonging to him.”5

From a bad guy to a victim.

What a difference a letter makes.


  1. No, my cats haven’t yet forgiven me for running off to teach in Alabama, and the little girl kitty in particular was not amused when I removed her from the suitcase before loading it into the car. She has taken to hissing at me when she sees the suitcase. Unless she’s in it.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1222, “villain.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 713, “libel.”
  5. Ibid., 1222, “villein.”
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