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Sometimes you need another dictionary

The Legal Genealogist loves it when a reader question offers up a gold-studded opportunity for learning .

And reader Patricia Victor did just that with her question on the legal Latin term levari facias.

She said she looked the term up in an online legal dictionary which defined it this way:

A writ of execution directing the sheriff to cause to be made of the lands and chattels of the judgment debtor the sum recovered by the judgment. … Also a writ to the bishop of the diocese, commanding him to enter into the benefice of a judgment debtor, and take and sequester the same into his possession, and hold the same until he shall have levied the amount of the judgment out of the rents, tithes, and profits thereof.1

“But,” she said, “I still don’t understand. The ‘cause to be made…’ is not clear to me. Can you translate into plain English?”

The online dictionary Pat chose — The Law Dictionary — is drawn from the second edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, published in 1910.2

Black’s Law Dictionary is, as I’ve said before, the gold standard for legal dictionaries.3

But, as Pat found, it isn’t always clear.

And it’s not the only game in town.

Which means that it’s always possible to check a definition from Black’s against a definition in another legal dictionary to see if, perhaps, the meeting meaning (sigh… dratted autocorrect!!) can become more clear.

The law dictionary I usually use as a double-check against Black’s when a meeting meaning isn’t clear is John Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, in the classic edition published in 1856.4 It’s as readily available online as Black’s Law dictionary is, and sometimes goes into more detail or just uses different language that makes a term simpler or clearer to me.

And this legal term seems to be a bit simpler or clearer in Bouvier’s longer definition, which includes:

This writ is also used to recover the plaintiff’s debt ; the sheriff is commanded to levy such debt on the lands and goods of the defendant, in virtue of which he may seize his goods, and receive the rents and profits of his lands, till satisfaction be made to the plaintiff.5

So, what the sheriff is being ordered to do is collect a debt. What he causes to be made is a payment, either from the goods or the lands of the debtor.

It’s one of two types of writs that could be used to collect a judgment debt. The other was called a fieri facias. The difference between them is that a fieri facias allowed the sheriff to seize and sell the debtor’s personal property to satisfy the debt; under a levari facias, the sheriff could seize and sell personal property to satisfy the debt and take the rents and profits of real property — land — for that purpose. In time, the term levari facias ceased to be used, and the term fieri facias came to mean a general writ that allowed the sheriff to seize and sell both personal and real property to satisfy a debt.

In this case, going to a second law dictionary helps make the meaning a little clearer. So having more than one legal dictionary on our virtual bookshelf is a Good Thing for those cases where even the gold standard isn’t good enough.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “On beyond Black’s,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 14 Aug 2019).


  1. The Law Dictionary ( : accessed 14 Aug 2019), “What is LEVARI FACIAS?”
  2. About,” The Law Dictionary ( : accessed 14 Aug 2019), citing Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law, 2d edition (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1910).
  3. Judy G. Russell, “Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 14 Aug 2019).
  4. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1856).
  5. Ibid., “Levari Facias,” II: 39.
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