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Law Library: Legal Dictionaries and Thesauri  

Last Updated: May 14, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

Introduction Print Page

What are legal dictionaries and thesauri?

Legal dictionaries provide definitions of legal terms, phrases, maxims, and Latin legal terms. The more comprehensive dictionaries provide citations to cases, legal encyclopedias, as well as A.L.R. annotations. Pronunciation guides and historical derivations are included in the more complete dictionaries. The more compact dictionaries only define essential or basic legal terms.

Thesauri provide synonyms, antonyms, and associated concepts, and often basic definitions are given.


How do you use legal dictionaries and thesauri?

First you must choose a suitable dictionary or thesaurus. If you are seeking a basic definition of a common legal term, consult a compact dictionary. If you are seeking a more complete definition of a less common term or legal phrase, consult one of the full-size dictionaries. If you are seeking a wider range of related terms and synonyms, consult a thesaurus.

Remember that words can be alphabetized letter by letter or word by word.


How do you cite dictionaries?

It is better to cite a primary authority providing a definition than a dictionary. Sometimes, however, no definition exists in the primary authority within your jurisdiction, so you must cite a secondary source like a dictionary.

Examples of proper citation, based upon Rule 15 of The Bluebook are:

Ballentine’s Law Dictionary 640 (3d ed. 1969).

Black’s Law Dictionary 977-978 (9th ed. 2009).

Daniel Oran, Oran’s Dictionary of the Law 278 (4th ed. 2008).


Why are legal dictionaries and thesauri useful?

Dictionaries and thesauri have two primary uses. First, many legal terms have meanings that differ from their non-legal connotations. You should look up your most important legal research terms in a law dictionary to make sure that you understand them. Second, these tools can help you identify additional research terms.


What are specialized dictionaries and legal usage texts?

If you cannot find your term or need a more detailed definition, you may wish to consult a specialized legal dictionary. Specialized legal dictionaries exist in many fields including business law, constitutional law, and international law. There are also special purpose dictionaries, including dictionaries of abbreviations.

Legal usage texts resemble dictionaries and provide definitions while addressing stylistic choices in legal writing.


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