The Joy of Legalese

Have you ever wondered why certain legal terms come “packaged” in seemingly redundant pairs? For example, why is it “cease and desist”? Shouldn’t ceasing be good enough? Or how about “null and void”? Aren’t they basically the same thing?

The use of these odd phrases dates back to the Norman invasion of England. The conquering Normans spoke an early version of French, while the conquered Anglo-Saxons spoke an early form of English. All legal matters and courtroom proceedings were initially carried out in a mixture of French and Latin, which would be incomprehensible to the average Anglo-Saxon.

To prevent miscommunication, the British legal system thus become “bilingual”. So phrases like “breaking and entering” (English\French), “fit and proper” (English\French), “lands and tenements” (English\French) and “will and testament” (English\Latin) were born out of the necessity for two people speaking different languages to communicate.

In time, of course, these “legal couplets” became a style all on their own, and phrases like “let and hindrance” and “have and hold” came into the language, even though both words in each couplet are fully English.

While I’m on the subject of “legalese”… have you ever heard the term “riot act”, as in “if you kids don’t start behaving, I’m gonna read you the riot act”?

This term is based on the Riot Act of 1714, an actual law passed by the Parliament of Great Britain. It authorized local governments to declare any group of more than twelve people to be “unlawfully assembled”, and thus subject to dispersal (by force, if necessary). Here’s how it worked:

If there was a gathering of 12 or more people in a town, the town’s mayor, a bailiff or a Justice of the Peace could approach them and read the following text:

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!

If the crowd failed to disperse within twenty minutes, anyone remaining was then guilty of a felony, which could be punishable by death. The Riot Act specifically indemnified the person reading the Riot Act, or any persons assisting the person reading the Riot Act, against any legal consequences in the event of any of the crowd being injured or killed.

The only people exempted from this law were people that could claim benefit of the clergy, an ancient immunity from prosecution in secular courts for members of the Catholic (and, later, Anglican) clergy. Amusingly, to prove that one was a member of the clergy, one only had to read Psalm 51 (“Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam.”) As you might guess, many lawbreakers simply memorized the verse, and only pretended to read it when challenged. Psalm 51 is still known as the “neck verse” in the UK, for the number of times it literally saved someone’s neck.

The Riot Act went into effect on on August 1, 1715, and was used many, many times until it was finally repealed in 1973. Similar laws are still in place in the former British colony of Belize, most Australian states, and our neighbor to the north, where the Riot Act reads thusly:

Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or their lawful business, on pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to an imprisonment for life. God Save the Queen!

Elements of the Riot Act were also incorporated into the Militia Act, which was passed by the United States Congress in 1792. This law remained in effect until it was replaced by the Militia Act of 1903, which is still in effect today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.