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One more option for legal terms

Earlier this week, reader Patricia Victor was puzzling out the meaning of the legal Latin term levari facias.

She’d already tried an online version early edition of Black’s Law Dictionary1The Legal Genealogist‘s preferred law dictionary2 — but the definition itself was confusing.

So one thing we can do in a case like that, when a definition of an historical legal term in a classic dictionary like Black’s is confusing, is check another of the older law dictionaries. And the one I suggested was an 1856 edition of a dictionary by John Bouvier,3 also readily available online.4

And, as so often happens, almost immediately, in came another suggestion from another reader — and it’s a good one:

For an even clearer explanation of levari facias, you might also have suggested that your reader check a modern edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, edited by writing guru Bryan Garner since its 7th edition. Garner’s editions of this dictionary will be found in any law library, although perhaps the latest edition is not yet be on the shelf. That edition of Black’s Law Dictionary–the 11th–was published earlier this year. Being retired, I have not elected to purchase the newest edition, so I cannot claim to know how he has most recently treated the defined Latinism. But on my bookshelf at home is his 8th edition (2004). That edition certainly improves the 1910 edition’s definition of levari facias by putting its archaic construction into active voice, to wit: “A writ of execution ordering a sheriff to seize a judgment debtor’s goods and income from lands until the judgment’s debt is satisfied.” (Trivia note: Garner also points out that this writ is chiefly used in the state of Delaware.)5

Now I don’t ordinarily suggest that genealogists buy a recent edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. The reason is that — at a particular point in the history of this wonderful dictionary — the editors and publishers decided that nobody was really interested in those old, archaic legal terms any more, and that they could make room for new terms and concepts coming into the law by simply leaving them out. So, in general, when one of us who needs to know about the oldest legal terminology is buying a physical copy of a law dictionary, we need to stick to versions before the fifth edition, published in 1979.6

Black's 11th edition

But this particular reader has particularly good credentials for suggesting that — at least on occasion — we might want to use a recent edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, at a local library or law library: she’s professor emeritus of law at the University of Arkansas Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, and taught legal research and writing for 25 years.

So I’ll endorse this suggested amendment to my what-does-that-mean research plan wholeheartedly: (1) check the historic editions of Black’s for a definition; (2) double-check it with other contemporaneous law dictionaries if Black’s is confusing; and, if we’re still confused, (3) triple check it with a modern Black’s on the chance that the term is still being used somewhere — and is now defined in plain modern English.

Hats off to the retired law professor for the suggestion.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Yet another resource,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 16 Aug 2019).


  1. The Law Dictionary ( : accessed 14 Aug 2019), “What is LEVARI FACIAS?”
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 14 Aug 2019).
  3. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1856).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “On beyond Black’s,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 14 Aug 2019.
  5. Email, Coleen Barger to Judy G. Russell, 14 August 2019.
  6. See Judy G. Russell, “Don’t buy that book!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 24 Mar 2017.
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