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As every schoolboy knows, Latin is a language as dead as dead can be; “First it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.” But if Latin is so dead, how come we still say “Marbury versus Madison”? And “Brown versus Board of Education”? Why use the Latin versus when the English “against” would work just as well? And while we’re at it: Why, in twenty-first-century America, does the court recognize a lawyer pro hac vice, instead of “for this case,” and a nonlawyer litigant pro se instead of “for himself”? The answer, logically enough, is because William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Because of that victory, the Normans took over England and imposed Latin as the common language of record keeping, just as it had been in their native France. 1066 And All That Unlike Old English � a jumble of dialects � Latin was already an ancient and standardized language by 1066. By using Latin, King William made sure his statutes and writs could be understood by every literate subject. As is often the case with conquerors, William was a bit of a control freak. Thanks to him, Latin became the definitive language of English law for several centuries. The English even made up new Latin words to fit their legal concepts. The Anglo-Saxon morder, for example, was Latinized to murdrum; or, as we say today, “murder.” Even when English lawyers were allowed to write in their own language, they continued to use Latin out of habit. And since lawyers tend to be a wee bit resistant to change, the Latin of King William is still used by lawyers in the English-speaking world a mere 937 years after the Norman Conquest. Imagine the consternation if any other profession tried to get away with something like that. What if, say, physicians decided to speak in ancient Greek because that was the language of Hippocrates? Or if accountants still used Roman numerals simply because they worked so well for William the Conqueror? Imagine how cumbersome it would be to fill out your Form MXLIV (1044). And yet, lawyers speak Latin every single day. They seek testimony by subpoena (under penalty), and say that a contract is void ab initio (from the beginning), and draft wills with bequests per stirpes (according to family branch). Lawyers make motions ex parte and in limine. They construe documents contra proferentem (against person who seeks to use it) and by reference to various canons of construction, including, inter alia, exclusio alterius (one meaning excludes the others) and in pari materia (in an analogous case). Ad Nauseum One real advantage to knowing Latin is that it gives every lawyer a link with the ancient origins of the profession. Consider a recent pronouncement of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in which the court denied the motion of the U.S. Senate to “intervene” in a case, but invited the Senate to appear as amicus curiae. Here, the terminology of the court is so ancient that even Julius Caesar would probably have understood it. Caesar would have been familiar with amicus curiae (friend of the court) � in ancient Rome, these were judicially appointed lawyers who were required to instruct the court on difficult points of law. The idea of “intervening” would have made sense, since that is simply an English rendering of the Latin intervenire (to come in). And of course, Caesar would have known all about the “Senate” ( Senatus), which means literally a “council of elders” (think Strom Thurmond). But it’s unlikely that Caesar would have agreed with the Ninth Circuit that the Senate makes a good “friend,” since it was a bunch of Roman senators who stabbed him to death. Indeed, if Caesar were around today, he might ask the Ninth Circuit: with amici like these, who needs adversarii?
Adam Freedman, an attorney at Schulte Roth & Zabel, writes the “Dear Diary” column for Corporate Counsel‘s sibling publication, the New York Law Journal.

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