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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Excuse My Legalese!

by Anna Levine, Esq.

The plain English movement has taken a firm hold on the legal profession, but at what cost? Legal writing experts and educators admonish lawyers to express themselves in plain English, to avoid legal jargon and prefer English terms over the traditional Latin or French counterparts.

Unfortunately, this effort to distance legal writing from its obscure linguistic roots limits our exposure to funny-sounding legal terms and deprives us of endless opportunities for inexpensive entertainment at the expense of our lawyers—entertainment that used to be reserved for bored law students.

A few days ago, for example, in the course of my research of an antiquated Massachusetts law, I came across the term “usufruct” (roughly pronounced: “you-so-frukt”). Smiling as I searched for the word’s definition (the “right to use another’s property for a time”) in Black’s Law Dictionary, learning in the process that the owner of the item burdened by a usufruct is called a “naked owner” (more giggles . . .), I found myself chuckling as I might to a funny scene in a movie or stage play.

The legal lexicon overflows with potential for low-cost entertainment. In tough economic times, we need to take our entertainment where we find it. When a legal document appears to be indecipherable mumbo-jumbo, therefore, I counsel readers to examine the language carefully and grasp every opportunity for amusement, especially at lawyers’ expense. Only after exhausting a document of all available puns and jabs, should you invoke your right to make the ubiquitous, yet justified, request: “Can you say that again in plain English?”

 

Anna G. Levine is an attorney with Bulkley, Richardson & Gelinas, a corporate partner of the UMass Family Business Center. She practices in the area of general corporate and tax law, and speaks Japanese, German, French and English

 

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