Legal doublets

I like the term legal doublet. It sounds like a fancy suit someone might wear to court. Its actual meaning, though, is even more interesting: it’s a legal phrase with two (or more) words that mean the same thing. Here are some examples:

  • cease and desist
  • aid and abet
  • will and testament
  • hue and cry
  • lewd and lascivious
  • give, devise, and bequeath
  • null and void
  • have and hold
  • keep and maintain
  • terms and conditions

What’s the deal? Are lawyers paid by the word? Nope. As with many other things in the U.S. criminal justice system, the explanation goes back to the 11th century and the Norman Conquest.

At the time of the conquest and for a long time afterward, England was not a land with a single language. In fact, three major languages were in use. The common people spoke the Germanic Anglo-Saxon, which evolved into English. The nobility, however, spoke French. And Latin was used by the clergy and educated people, including lawyers. Furthermore, as time passed, the use of language shifted, so French and Latin were used less in official contexts and English was used more.

Clarity is of utmost importance in legal language. So often, in order to make sure the meaning was clear to all, a legal phrase might be written in two or more languages. We can see this well in give (English), devise (French), and bequeath (English again). And in will (English) and testament (Latin).

But there were other uses for doublets as well. Sometimes two very similar words carry different nuances, and a writer wanted to cover all the bases. Breaking and entering is a good example of this. They’re pretty much the same thing, although perhaps a savvy lawyer could argue that a person could break (a window or a lock) without entering (stepping foot on the premises) or, if the door was unlocked, could enter without breaking. Better to include them both. Assault and battery is another example. Technically, assault is putting someone in fear of harmful or offensive contact, whereas battery is the harmful or offensive contact itself. You could have one without the other: the perp could threaten but not carry it out (assault) or the victim could have his back turned and never see the punch coming until the fist hit him (battery). In most cases, though, where you have one, you have the other.

The third reason for legal doublets is simply that they sound nice. They’re a rhetorical device. Raise the hue and cry sounds a lot better than just raise the hue or raise the cry (or, you know, just shout). Law has a rich oral tradition dating back to the time of Socrates, if not further, and lawyers have always wanted to sound good and important and knowledgeable.

As an author, I revel (rejoice, delight, exult, luxuriate, glory) in the linguistic diversity English allows us. Legal doublets are one interesting facet of this diversity.




2 thoughts on “Legal doublets

  1. That was absolutely fascinating. I’m an amateur etymologist, like so many writers, so it was especially interesting to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *