The Devil’s Dictionary: Legal Edition - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Devil’s Dictionary: Legal Edition

The Devil’s Dictionary: Legal Edition

By Sean Braswell


Because lawyers, like commercials, are a necessary evil.

By Sean Braswell

In his irreverent 1906 masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary, the 19th-century American writer Ambrose Bierce took aim at all manner of human hypocrisies, sins and shortcomings by penning a lexicon of cynical word definitions for a cynical age.

In the latest installment of The Devil’s Guide, we channel Bierce’s sardonic spirit to explore the true meanings of the jargon and fancy Latin terms that litter the landscape of the law.

acquittal, n. Determination that a guilty person has been detained for the wrong crime.

affidavit, n. A sworn lie.

amicus curiae, n. A friend of the court whose unsolicited suggestions, like any well-intentioned friend’s advice, will go entirely unheeded.

appeal, v. In law, to put the dice into the box for another throw. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

attorney, n. The name a lawyer gives himself on a first date.

bail, n. Court-sanctioned device for ensuring that freedom is proportional to one’s ability to pay for it.

bankruptcy, n. A financial mulligan.

circumstantial evidence, n. Evidence sufficient to fan gossip but not to extinguish it.

closing statement, n. An attorney’s last-ditch effort to distract a jury from the matter at hand.

contract, n. Intentionally abstruse written agreement between a drafting party and its victim.

crime, n. An action or omission causing offense to one with the wherewithal to object.

discovery, n. Process through which the two sides to a legal dispute take turns impeding the other from discovering the facts needed to resolve it.

eyewitness, n. A hapless bystander celebrated by the prosecution for his keen inability to remember what he have seen with his own eyes.

felon, n. A person of greater enterprise than discretion, who in embracing an opportunity has formed an unfortunate attachment. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

grand larceny, n. Act of committing theft while Black.

guilty, adj. Condition of one who has violated the rights of others without the assistance of a lawyer.

hearsay, n. Information acquired from another party that is sufficiently robust to be relied on by newspapers, households and workplaces, but not by a court of law.

human rights, n. Fundamental rights so inherent to the dignity of an individual that they cannot be taken away without due pretense.

impunity, n. Wealth. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

kill, v. To create a vacancy without nominating a successor. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

judge, n. A law student who marks his own examination papers. — H.L. Mencken

jury, n. A group that is composed of 12 men of average ignorance. — Herbert Spencer

justice, n. Moral eclipse of the heavens achieved when the partiality of a court perfectly aligns with the orbit of one’s own self-interest, temporarily casting a shadow over the land.

law school, n. Device for saddling high-minded, young thoroughbreds with enough intellectual baggage and debt that they are content to live out their remaining days as low-riding company mules.

laws, n. Spiderwebs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught. — attributed to Honoré de Balzac

lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

litigant, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

malpractice, n. The practice of law by a nonlawyer. The practice of law by a lawyer.

precedent, n. In Law, a previous decision, rule or practice which … has whatever force and authority a Judge may choose to give it, thereby greatly simplifying his task of doing as he pleases. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

privilege, n. Legal doctrine ensuring that the sensitive information you share with your lawyer will remain strictly within the confines of her immediate family and friends.

proof, n. Evidence confirming your existing opinion of the facts.

pro se, n. Latin for the method by which a litigant without money for lawyers is considerately permitted to lose his case. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Gavil more color
reasonable doubt, n. The commendable uncertainty residing in the mind of a superstitious creature whose prejudices do not allow him to convict.

retainer, n. Fee paid to a lawyer who has yet to take your case for the purpose of securing his services to lose it at a later date.

Supreme Court, n. Esteemed court in which justices unbound by term limits, infirmity or transparency are given the final say in determining the employment, health and privacy of their fellow citizens.

thief, n. A salesman without pretense. — The Verge, The New Devil’s Dictionary

truth, n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

warrant, n. A court-ordered fishing expedition.

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