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Law dictionaries online

It was a particularly timely question that came in from reader Kellye Hawkins.

Just after The Legal Genealogist had given a virtual presentation this past Saturday to the Florida Genealogical Society – Tampa about legal lingo and how to survive dealing with it, in came Kellye’s question: “Can you recommend a database of legal books or the books themselves that would have been used before and during the Reconstruction Era in the US?,” she wrote. “I’m looking for the contemporary legal jargon so that I understand the terms during my search of probate records, wills, deeds, etc. as they were understood during that time/those times. I am mostly interested in property, tax, etc. law in SC, GA, NC & VA in the 19th century.”

Now… there’s just so much about this question that I love — among them, first, that Kellye clearly understands that the legal jargon may very well change with the time and place of the transaction; second, that I get to highlight my standard go-to sources for legal jargon; and third, that I get to remind people of a general source for lots of legal jargon across the years that too often gets overlooked.

Georgetown Legal Dictionaries

As long-time readers of this blog know, The Legal Genealogist‘s mantra is this: to understand the records, we have to understand the laws — and not as an abstract matter, but the specific laws of the time and place each record was created.

And that means understanding the terminology of the time and place.

Which, of course, means not using today’s legal dictionaries — or at least making sure that the term we’re looking at wasn’t used differently at the time and place our record was created.

So, as long-time readers of this blog know, I’m always going to send readers to two basic go-to sources all the time:

• Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891)1; and

• John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1856).2

Black’s Law Dictionary is the gold standard in the law, and has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in more than 300 cases, the first time in 1901 for Black’s definition of “common law.”3 Bouvier was no slouch, either, managing to be cited in 106 U.S. Supreme Court cases starting in 1865 with his definition of “pilots.”4

Both of these are widely available online, so make sure you download or bookmark copies for your personal reference from any of the major digitized book services:

Google Books

Black’s Law Dictionary, 1891

Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 1856

HathiTrust Digital Library

Black’s Law Dictionary, 1891

Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 1856

Internet Archive

Black’s Law Dictionary, 1891

Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 1856

Now, because Bouvier wrote his dictionary before Black — though the classic edition is the 1856 edition, Bouvier’s first edition was published in 18395 — in some cases, we’re going to want to look at Bouvier rather than Black — or in addition to Black — to make sure we understand the term used in our document. A term used in 1840 may well have changed meaning by 1891.

But what about earlier times? Or documents from our English ancestors? What do we do then?

That’s when we turn to my other go-to source: Georgetown University’s Law Library and its wonderful collection of legal dictionaries all nicely and neatly digitized for us to use.

This collection has everything from John Rastell’s Expositions of the termes of the lawes of Englande, published in 15756 to James Ballentine’s 1916 U.S.-focused Law Dictionary.7 In between, of course, among lots of other options, are Black’s 1891 and 1910 editions and Bouvier’s 1848 and 1860 editions.

So when you need to understand the jargon of the time and place, there’s plenty of help available.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Sourcing the lingo,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Jan 2019 ( : accessed (date)).


  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 8 Jan 2019).
  2. See generally ibid., “Another dictionary, another geek,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 14 Mar 2012.
  3. Western Union Tel. Co. v. Call Publishing Co., 181 U.S. 92, 102 (1901).
  4. S.S. Co. v. Joliffe, 69 U.S. 450, 462 n. 12 (1865).
  5. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States (Philadelphia: Johnson Booksellers, 1839).
  6. John Rastell, Expositions of the termes of the lawes of Englande (London : Richardi Tottel, 1575).
  7. James A. Ballentine, A Law Dictionary (San Francisco : Bancroft-Whitney Co., 1916).
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