Today Thomson Reuters is announcing the
release of the 10th edition of Black’s
Law Dictionary
edited by Bryan A. Garner. New editions of standard reference
works don’t often warrant a press release or a  blog post,  but Black’s 10th
merits both. If you have a Black’s Law Dictionary  predating
1996 when Garner took over as editor, its
ripe for the recycling bin. Time
to invest in a new edition. The new Black’s  includes 50,000 definitions, 4,000 Latin legal maxims,  7,500 new terms and 16,000 new definitions.

Why Dictionaries Still Matter. If you are wondering if dictionaries still matter,
consider Garner’s explanation of why they do. I am paraphrasing here. The legal profession is essentially
a profession of writers.Lawyers are writers who need to be persuasive.
Words are their primary tools of  persuasion – so they better understand how to
choose the right word.

Andy Martens, global head of Product and Editorial for Thomson Reuters also made this compelling statement in the Thomson Reuters press release: “The
law is understood and enforced according to the words that define it, making Black’s Law Dictionary as important to
the practice of law as is our common understanding of its language.”

The Lexicographer Garner who is regarded as the world’s leading, legal lexicographer warrants a
blog post of his own. Its hard not to be intrigued by someone who has been the
subject of a front page New York Times story — on a controversy involving legal footnotes no less, co-written books with
a Supreme Court Justice (Scalia) and rewritten the rules of golf in plain English.  But that’s a story for another day.  In addition to being the editor of Black’s, he is a professor at Southern Methodist University Law School, and runs a company called LawProse which teaches legal writing to lawyers and judges.

 The History of Black’s From Surviving to Thriving 

 years ago  law libraries were  likely to have 3 leading
American law dictionaries, Bouvier’s,
Ballentine’s and Black’s. John Bouvier wrote the first American dictionary in 1839 as a response to the difficulties he encountered in his admission to the bar. Henry Campbell Black, a lawyer from Ossining, New York authored A Dictionary of Law in 1891 when Bouvier’s was in it’s 14th edition. Ballantine’s  was published by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing but hasn’t been updated since 1969. Black’s is the only dictionary which has not only
survived but is thriving in the 21st Century. 

There were several  decades in the mid 20th century when the quality and
editorial standards of Black’s slipped.  Since 1996 Garner has essentially
rewritten the whole dictionary while refining and redefining it’s mission and
scope. He has overseen the weeding out on non-legal terms. Just because a
judicial opinion included a definition of  something like “Boston cream pie”
– that doesn’t make the phrase a legal term. He added pronunciation guides,
removed West key numbers, expanded and refined definitions, added sources, first use dates and quotations.

One of the most
ambitious aspects of Garner’s vision is the addition of historical notes and
examples of usage. In an interview Garner noted that  Google Books
was an invaluable
source for pinpointing  original usage. According to Garner he tries to provide the Locus
(seminal remark) as the basis for understanding the term. He has also expanded
bibliographic coverage,  citing  twice as many sources as the 9th
The earliest usage dates in English-language contexts for nearly
all terms are also included. In an interview Garner credited Yale Law Library’s
Fred Shapiro with providing these dates. Black’s is the only legal
dictionary with this feature. Quotations are included
to be both illustrative and substantive..

·      Mommy track ,affluenza defense,
bioweapon, cryptanalysis, gazump, hacker, legaldygook, intrapreneur,  one-bite rule, psephology, unperson,
and zero-tolerance law, are all included for the first time in the 10th edition.
Quotes have been
added from 1,000 treatises.
·         Enhances and validates over 1,000 Latin maxims
Latinisms include “lex sportiva
the law of international sports.
·        On
Hipster front, David Lat of Above the Law is credited with inventing  new
 terms “benchslap,” “ judicial diva” and “litagatrix.” Garner gave Lat
credit for reviving   “litagatrix”  if not originating the word which was first used in 1771 
     (presumably in a context not involving black leather and hardware.)
It Takes A Village (of Word
While Garner  has  provided the
vision for the evolution of Black’s he supported by a devoted army of attorneys, researchers and
librarians around the country and around the world who contribute expertise to
the enterprise. The press release quotes Garner as stating that  “Every
term has been reviewed for accuracy by attorneys across the country.” “Latin
maxims have also been thoroughly reviewed and edited, with 900 new maxims
Prescriptive vs Descriptive
One of the first things I learned in graduate school about the
evaluation of dictionaries is to determine if they are descriptive or
prescriptive. Garner places Black’s squarely in the descriptive camp. He doesn’t
tell lawyers how to use words. (He has another book that does that). He describes the way each word and phrase has
been used. He also strives to be balanced,  objective and neutral as possible no matter what
the subject. In a wired world of extreme opinions and partisanship this is a refreshingly novel, “agenda-less” approach.
Primary vs Secondary
Dictionaries are normally regarded as secondary sources. One of Garner’s missions has been to  transform  Black’s from a secondary source to a primary source. In Garner’s view Black’s has  become  “a primary
lexicographic resource.” I would have to agree – the magnitude of the Garner’s (and his merry band of “word nerds”) original editorial efforts have transformed Black’s from an uncritical compilation of definitions to a work of scholarship.
My Favorite Legal Word?
Yes I curled up with this hefty, handful and read chunks of Black’s. I came away with a favorite phrase: “Master in
Lunacy.”  “A degree awarded to someone who enters law school in 2014” perhaps? Let your imagination run wild and pick up a copy of Black’s 10th to
find the answer.



Yates, Sarah, Blacks Law Dictionary: The Making of an American Standard, 103 Law Library Journal 2 (2011-2)

Preface to the Tenth Edition Black’s Law Dictionary

Lawyer2lawyer Podcast interview