Legalese 101



Many legal terms originate from Latin, and we all know the stereotype that lawyers like to use big fancy words. I’ve always thought some terms, such as “per stirpes,” sound like illnesses, and there is a recent trend in legal education which emphasises the use of (as much as possible) everyday language in legal writing and documents. Just for fun, however, let’s clarify what some of these legalese terms mean.

Torts – this is a broad area of law that deals with compensating a victim for a loss or injury he or she suffered due to someone else’s wrongdoing (much of civil litigation relates to torts). The word comes from the Latin word tortus, which means crooked. The wrongdoer is also called a tortfeasor.

Per stirpes – this is a term used in Wills which divides a portion of an estate proportionately between the beneficiaries (IE. “to my 3 children per stripes” means each child gets 1/3). In Latin, per stirpes means by roots or stocks.

In specie – this term is used in Wills to describe giving property to a beneficiary in the form it was in at the date the deceased died. This allows an Executor to transfer a specific item of property to a beneficiary instead of selling the item to give its value in cash. In specie means “in kind” in Latin.

Habeus corpus – this term means “that you have the body” in Latin. An individual who is detained (a prisoner or someone institutionalised under mental health legislation) can apply to the Court to review the legality of his or her detention by asking for a writ (a Court Order) of habeus corpus.

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