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Legal English is the language used in law, characterised by its precision, complexity, and specialised terminology. While it provides clarity and specificity in legal contexts, it can often be less accessible to laypeople. Despite its specialised nature, certain words and phrases from legal English have made their way into everyday conversation, often with meanings that have evolved or broadened from their original legal definitions. Here are some terms that originally have specific meanings in legal contexts but are also used in everyday language.

Affidavit

This is a written statement confirmed by oath or affirmation for use as evidence in court. Outside the courtroom, people might refer to any written statement as an affidavit, particularly if it has some formal standing.

Alibi

Legally, an alibi is evidence showing that a person was in another place at the time a crime was committed and, therefore, could not be the perpetrator. In everyday speech, it’s often used to refer to an excuse or reason given to avoid blame or responsibility.

Appeal

In a legal setting, to appeal means to request a higher court to review and change a lower court’s decision. In daily use, it can mean to ask earnestly for something or to be attractive or interesting.

Assault

In legal terms, assault typically refers to the intentional act of causing someone to fear that they will suffer immediate physical harm or offensive contact. It doesn’t necessarily involve physical contact but rather the threat or attempt to cause harm. In everyday language, assault might be used more broadly to describe any form of physical violence or aggressive behaviour.

Bail

Bail is money or property given to a court to ensure that a defendant will return for their trial. Colloquially, bail can mean abruptly leaving or escaping from a situation, often without fulfilling commitments.

Bankruptcy

In law, bankruptcy is a legal proceeding involving a person or business that is unable to repay outstanding debts. Outside of this context, people might use the term more casually to refer to a situation of being completely out of money or resources.

Blackmail

As a legal term, blackmail refers to the act of demanding money or another benefit from someone in return for not revealing compromising or damaging information about them. In everyday conversation, it’s used in a similar context or to describe any kind of coercive pressure.

Cease and Desist

In legal terms, a cease and desist order is issued to halt an illegal activity. Outside of court, you might tell someone jokingly to cease and desist, when you want them to stop doing something annoying.

Closing Argument

In legal proceedings, a closing argument is a summary of the case presented by each side’s attorney at the end of a trial. In casual conversation, a closing argument might refer to a persuasive or conclusive statement made to conclude any kind of debate or discussion.

Consideration

In law, consideration refers to something of value given in exchange for a promise or performance. In everyday conversation, consideration may simply mean careful thought or attention to a matter.

Contempt

Legally, contempt of court refers to actions that defy or disrespect the authority of the court. In everyday conversation, contempt might refer to a general feeling of disdain or disrespect toward someone or something.

Contract

In legal terms, a contract is a binding agreement between parties that is enforceable by law. In everyday conversation, the word may be used more loosely to refer to any agreement or promise, even if it’s not formalised.

Criminal

In law, criminal refers to behaviour that is punishable by law, typically involving harm to others or society as a whole. In everyday conversation, criminal may be used more broadly to describe morally or ethically wrong behaviour.

Cross-Examination

In legal proceedings, cross-examination is the questioning of a witness by the opposing party. In everyday conversation, cross-examination might simply refer to thorough questioning or scrutiny.

Damages

In legal terms, damages refer to monetary compensation awarded to a party who has suffered harm or loss due to the actions of another. In everyday conversation, damages can also refer to physical harm or destruction.

Default

In legal terminology, default refers to the failure to fulfil a legal obligation, particularly when a defendant does not respond to a lawsuit. More generally, it can refer to any failure to act, such as not paying a bill or not showing up for an appointment. In computer terminology, it is a preselected option adopted by a program or other mechanism when the user or programmer specifies no alternative.

Deposition

In legal proceedings, a deposition is a process in which a witness gives sworn testimony out of court. In everyday language, deposition can be used more loosely to refer to the act of giving a statement or testimony without necessarily implying the formal or sworn nature of legal depositions.

Evidence

In legal terms, evidence refers to information presented in court to prove or disprove facts in a case. In everyday conversation, evidence may also refer to facts or information supporting an argument or conclusion.

Judgement

In court, a judgement is the final decision or ruling made by a judge or jury. In common language, judgement might refer to an individual’s opinion or assessment of a situation or person.

Jurisdiction

In legal terms, jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to hear and decide a case. In everyday conversation, jurisdiction may be used more broadly to refer to an area of authority or control.

Liability

In law, liability refers to legal responsibility for one’s actions or debts. In common conversation, liability may be broadly used to refer to accountability or responsibility in general.

Libel and Slander

These are types of defamation in the law – libel being written and slander being spoken. Outside courtrooms, people may use these terms to accuse others of damaging their reputation, not always in a strictly legal sense.

Litigation

This term refers to the process of taking legal action or settling disputes in court. In everyday language, it’s sometimes used more generally to refer to any argument or dispute, whether or not it involves the legal system.

Misdemeanour

In the legal system, a misdemeanour is a criminal offence that is less serious than a felony. In casual conversation, it might describe a minor wrongdoing or faux pas.

Negligence

Legally, negligence is a failure to take reasonable care, resulting in damage or injury to another. Colloquially, people use it to describe carelessness or lack of attention in various situations.

Objection

In the courtroom, an objection is a formal protest raised during a trial regarding the admissibility of evidence or the conduct of parties. Outside of legal cases, objections are simply expressions of disapproval or dissent.

Perjury

In a legal sense, perjury is the offence of lying under oath in court. In common usage, perjury might be used to accuse someone of lying in general, even outside of a legal context.

Probable Cause

In law enforcement and legal proceedings, this refers to the standard by which police have the authority to make an arrest, search, or obtain a warrant. In everyday language, it might be used to describe a reasonable suspicion or justification for an action or belief.

Subpoena

In the legal system, a subpoena is a formal document ordering someone to attend court. In everyday speech, it might be used hyperbolically to mean any request with a strong sense of obligation, such as being summoned by a boss or family member.

Testimony

In court, testimony is evidence given by a witness under oath. In common usage, testimony might refer to personal accounts or stories shared by individuals, often without the formal legal context.

Tort

In legal terminology, a tort is a civil wrong that causes harm or loss to another person, giving rise to a legal claim for damages. In everyday language, tort may not be commonly used, and people may simply refer to wrongdoing or injury.

Vacate

In the legal system, vacate means to set aside or cancel a previous order or judgment. In casual conversation, vacate means leaving a building, room, seat, etc., so that it is available for other people.

Verdict

Legally, a verdict is the decision of a jury on a matter submitted to them in a trial. In everyday language, it’s any judgment or opinion given after considering something.

Waiver

In legal terminology, a waiver is the voluntary relinquishment of a right or claim. In everyday conversation, waiver may also refer to the act of giving up or foregoing something.

Will

In legal contexts, a will is a document in which a person specifies how their property is to be distributed after their death. Generally, it can simply refer to one’s intention or decision.

Witness

In a courtroom, a witness is someone who provides testimony under oath. In everyday language, a witness can also refer to someone who sees an event or incident occur.

These examples demonstrate how legal terms can be integrated into everyday language, reflecting their influence on common discourse and understanding. While these terms may have specific meanings within the legal context, their usage in everyday conversation may vary depending on the context and the speaker’s intent. It’s essential to consider the context in which these terms are used to understand their intended meaning.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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