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Going beyond the lingo

It’s no secret that The Legal Genealogist loves Black’s Law Dictionary.

It’s a comprehensive dictionary of legal terms — many of them critical to the records we work with day in and day out — that gives new meaning to the concept of “Gold Standard.” 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.

It’s the one I tend to use, to cite and explain legal terminology, in most cases.1

LamplighterThis one dictionary has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in hundreds of cases, the first time in 1901 for Black’s definition of “common law.”2 I wouldn’t even try to guess how many times it’s been cited in American courts overall — but the numbers would, I’m sure, run into the thousands.

But it’s not the only game in town.

And sometimes you just have to spend a little bit of time meandering through some of the other legal dictionaries that are out there to get a feel for the time and the place.

One of my favorites to spend some time with is the dictionary by Giles Jacob.3 Described as “one of the most prolific legal authors of the 17th century” by Yale Law School Library’s Mike Widener,4 Jacob was an English legal writer and literary critic. Born in 1686 in Hampshire, he married in 1733 and died in 1744. He wrote extensively on English law and his Law Dictionary was regarded as a commercial and scholarly success.5

As to his dictionary: “Jacob began his dictionary in 1720 and published it in 1729. The work was an ambitious attempt to combine a dictionary, an abridgment of the law, and a vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon and Law-French words. … Although much of the material was not really new, the work was an improvement over its predecessors and provided a model for later dictionaries. It went through five editions before the author’s death in 1744, and six more editions were published before 1800.”6

You can find many copies of Jacob’s law dictionary digitized online, from the very first 1729 edition at Google Books to an American-published six-volume edition from 1811.

And it’s fascinating reading, not just for legal terminology but because of the birds-eye view it provides into the lives and times of our British ancestors.

For example, you won’t find the term “lamps” by itself in Black’s law dictionary. The closest you can come is finding the word in the definition of “lights” to include “signal-lamps on board a vessel or at particular points on the coast, required by the navigation laws to be displayed at night.”7 But if you look up the term “lamps” in Jacob’s law dictionary, you’ll get an education in British life:

House-keepers in London, living in Streets, are to hang out Lamps every Night ’till twelve a-Clock, from Michaelmas to Lady-day, under the Penalty of 2 s. for every Default.8

Now you’d need to know that Michaelmas was the Feast of Michael and All Angels (29 September)9 and Lady Day was the traditional name for the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March).10

But where else are you going to find out that your city-dwelling London ancestor had to provide his own streetlights?

Law dictionaries.

As research tools.

For more than just legal terms.



  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “That lesser crime,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Dec 2017 ( : accessed 11 Dec 2017).
  2. Western Union Tel. Co. v. Call Publishing Co., 181 U.S. 92, 102 (1901).
  3. Giles Jacob, A New Law Dictionary: Containing the Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law; …, Published to this Time … (London, England : p.p., 1729); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 11 Dec 2017).
  4. Michael Widener, “New on the shelves: The Taussig Collection of English Law,” Yale Law Library blog, posted 20 Aug 2013 ( : accessed 11 Dec 2017).
  5. See generally Wikipedia (, “Giles Jacob,” rev. 25 Feb 2017.
  6. Giles Jacob (1686-1744),”

    Law Dictionary Collection

    , Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas ( : accessed 11 Dec 2017).

  7. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 722, “lights.”
  8. Jacob, A New Law Dictionary, PDF at 433, “lamps.”
  9. Wikipedia (, “Michaelmas,” rev. 5 Dec 2017.
  10. Ibid., “Lady Day,” rev. 6 Dec 2017.
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