Perusing the new additions to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, I was struck by the term non-refoulement. As a Francophile working with refugees in my free time, it is not an unfamiliar term to me, nevertheless it prompted some questions.

Non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country in which they are at risk of harm, was first expressed in the context of international law in 1933, and its opposite, refoulement, has been in English since the mid-19th century, albeit in the sense ‘an instance of water being forced back into the channel of a river’.

My first thought was, why have we (so recently) adopted this French word in English, instead of finding an equivalent term in English?

feb 2019It is not uncommon to find French terms in legal vocabulary, but often there is a clear historical reason for this. It makes sense, for example, that legal terms such as arrest, bailiffculprit, jury, mortgage and parole came to English via Old French (even though some of these terms in modern French bear no resemblance to the original), because they came here at the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

In this same Medieval period, it wasn’t just French that was mixed with English in legal terminology. Unsurprisingly, Latin played an important role, too. The linguist David Crystal has written about the feature of legal language whereby words from different languages were paired together, perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to emphasize certain points[i]. Among others, Crystal gives the English/French examples of ‘fit and proper’ and ‘lands and tenements’, and the English/Latin pairing ‘will and testament’, all of which are still commonly used today.

But herein lies my confusion. This use of language is both logical and promotes a certain ease of understanding (or at least used to). Whereas, to a mind such as mine, untrained in the intricacies of law, unfathomable legalese now far outweighs legal language which is easily understood.

Among OALD’s legal topic lists, words abound such as despoil, purloin, infringe, justiciary, violate, testimony, void, writ, nullify, vest in … words which you’re unlikely to come across in everyday English transactions. Others I’ve had fun discovering in OALD include affidavit, a fortiori, corpus delicti, de jure, fiduciary, habeas corpus, lieutenant, malfeasance, obiter dictum, prima facie, sine die, sub judice, subpoena, ultra vires. I wonder if you can do a better job than me at pronouncing these in English? And if you can, do you know what they mean?

Very few native speakers of English would be able to explain all of these terms. So why do we keep such complicated terminology? Would it be better to scrap all these French- and Latin-derived terms? When used in the press or on the television news, they usually have to be explained, so shouldn’t we just replace them with something simpler? Or do they in fact serve an important purpose?

After all, one of the charms of the English language is its precision, richness and nuance, which can be attributed to its borrowing of words from other languages throughout the ages [see in silico post]. If they are used enough, they become familiar. The word refugee, for example, is commonly understood nowadays, but perhaps wouldn’t have been so clear when it originally came to English from French in the late 17th century:


More recently, force majeure was adopted into English legalese, and is not unheard of in ‘normal’ life (albeit in specific situations) – so perhaps the newer addition non-refoulement just needs longer to trickle into our consciousness?

You may have noticed a common thread throughout these tricky terms borrowed from French and Latin – each one has a very precise meaning, because the law is a domain (like medicine) in which linguistic precision is paramount, de jure and de facto!

[i] David Crystal, The Stories of English (Penguin Books, 2004), Part 7.4.

Isabel Tate is an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.

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