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Legal Curiosities: What I Am.

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This post is a follow up to yesterday’s post, in which we challenged you to solve a riddle.  Today we have the answer:

The book we misplaced is the 1910 edition of ‘A Law Dictionary‘ by Henry Campbell Black, known now as Black’s Law Dictionary This title has been relied upon by many legal scholars and academics, and cited by the Supreme Court, although interestingly, the use of dictionaries by the Supreme Court is not without controversy.

There are now apps for this title, and a pocket sized and desktop version.

When I set about writing this post, I initially looked in our collection for the first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, which I thought would be in the Rare Book Collection so I asked our Rare Book Curator and fellow In Custodia Legis blogger Nathan if we happened to have a copy.  He was unable to find a record in the Library of Congress’ Online Catalog, so he consulted ye olde but trusty (but no longer updated) card catalog. What he found was that the Library of Congress had a copy of the first edition of Black’s once upon a time – but there was a penciled in note on the card indicating that it was already determined to be “not found,” nearly a hundred years ago, on December 14th, 1917.

The shelf that I put Black’s Law Dictionary on is located in “the vault,” where we keep the rare books of the Law Library.  The vault is maintained at the cool temperature of 65° Fahrenheit to help preserve the books.  Even the chilly temperature is not much of a deterrent to me once I get in there to take a look at the other materials we have; it truly is an unbelievable place.  As this post addresses law dictionaries I asked Nathan, who assisted me greatly, if we had any other dictionaries in the Rare Book Collection.  Nathan, the true intellectual that he is, listed a series of titles off the top of his head, and quickly returned with what legal historians regard as the first legal dictionary ever printed, the Vocabularius utriusque juris, with the astounding date of publication of 1475.  I was very glad I left my cup of tea in my office at this point.  My English tongue does not allow me to pronounce the title correctly, so translated into English it is: a vocabulary of both laws.  When referring to “both laws” the title covers both canon and civil law. This title has over seventy editions published and the University of Texas at Austin’s Tarlton Law Library, Rare Books and Special Collections has a nice synopsis about  it.

The second dictionary in the Law Library’s Rare Book Collection that Nathan brought out was

John Rastell
A copy of John Rastell's Expositiones terminorum legum Anglorum held in the Law Library of Congress' Rare Books collection

John Rastell’s Expositiones terminorum legum Anglorum. These titles were definitely making me feel one of the many errors of my youth in not taking more foreign language classes, although Nathan was very patient and kind, and within showing me two books he gave the Latin name and then immediately translated it into English for me.  In this case, the translation is the exposition of the terms of the laws of England.  This dictionary is an early edition of the first ever English Law dictionary (although it’s written in Anglo-Norman), and is in the format that most of us are used to today – alphabetized.  It was first published around 1523, and the copy in the Rare Book reading room was published in 1527.

Thank you once again to Nathan, and for the understanding of my colleagues that I really did put Black’s dictionary in its rightful place.

Comments (2)

  1. Hey, I knew that!! (And I am delighted beyond words to have you link to my post about Henry Campbell Black!!)

    But I sure didn’t know about the Vocabularius utriusque juris. What a treasure… except that I don’t speak or read Latin either.

  2. This is the best web site ever. Keep up the good work.

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