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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

It’s institute season.

This week was the Midwest African-American Genealogy Institute (MAAGI) at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Next week is the second week of the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP) at LaRoche College.

The week after that is the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at the University of Georgia.

The week after that will see both the Researching Family in Pennsylvania program at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

And The Legal Genealogist is involved in all of them. Teaching in at least one class at every one, plus taking a course at GRIP.

So you know what that means… time for the blog is at a premium.

And that means an occasional foray into legal alphabet soup.

We’re up to the letter O so far in 2019, so today’s word will be olograph.

2019 letter O

No, that’s not misspelled.

Olograph, not holograph.

Even though — sigh — they both mean exactly the same thing in the law.

An olograph, by definition, is an “instrument (e. g., a will) wholly written by the person from whom it emanates.”1

And a holograph, by definition, is a “will or deed written entirely by the testator or grantor with his own hand.”2

In short, both an olograph and a holograph are instruments written completely by the person making the instrument, by hand.

So… why do we have two words for the same thing?

As far as I can tell, it’s because the Civil Law dropped the H.

Remember that there are two basic legal systems that were imported into North America from Europe. The English colonists brought over the English common law, and the term used in the common law jurisdictions for this handwritten document was holograph. It’s not an English word itself — its roots are in Latin and Greek: “Late Latin holographus, from Late Greek holographos, from Greek holos whole, complete + graphein to write.”3

So, just as one example, you’ll find the term used in the decision of the New York Supreme Court in Mason v. Williams in 1893: “The probate of this will was contested upon the ground that it was radically different from a holographic will written by the testator six weeks earlier…”4

But the Dutch, the French and the Spanish followed the Civil Law — a legal system originating from the written legal code of the Roman empire of the Emperor Justinian and “distinguished from the common law of England.”5 And in Civil Law jurisdictions — particularly in Louisiana — the word is spelled without the initial H.

So, again just as one example, you’ll find the different spelling used by the Louisiana Supreme Court in State v. Martin in 1847: “An olographic will, to be valid, must be entirely written, dated, and signed by the hand of the testator.”6

Although you will see some older references to the term spelled that way in California,7 these days, it’s pretty much confined to Louisiana. In fact, one modern law encyclopedia says an olographic will is just “the Louisiana term for what other states call a holographic will.”8

Which means, in essence, that if you see the word used without the leading H, it’s most likely from Louisiana.

Aren’t you glad you know that? I mean, seriously, could you have gotten through the rest of the day without that?

You’re welcome.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2019 alphabet soup: O is for…,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 12 July 2019).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 847, “olograph.”
  2. Ibid., 575, “holograph.”
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 12 July 2019), “holograph.”
  4. Mason v. Williams, 6 N.Y.S. 479, 480 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., 1st Dept., 1889).
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 207, “Civil Law.”
  6. State v. Martin, 2 La. Ann. 667, 677 (1847).
  7. See e.g. In re Estate of Rand, 61 Cal. 468, 475 (1882).
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 12 July 2019), “olographic will.”
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