Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Legal lingo and its origins.

Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the Yale Book of Quotations and coauthor, with James Clapp, Elizabeth Thornburg, and Marc Galanter, of Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions.

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

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From boilerplate to make a federal case out of it to indict a ham sandwich, law-related language reflects law’s nature as a field in which extreme aspects of our society—the violence of crime, the tedium of procedure—intersect. Three colleagues and I recently published a book on the origins of common words and phrases with legal aspects. Here are three examples.

Blue Laws

Today the term blue laws usually refers to any regulation restricting commercial activities on Sundays. The phrase is widely thought to have originated with a set of harsh statutes promulgated by the Puritan Colony of New Haven in the seventeenth century. Historians have long known that many of these “blue laws” were found not in New Haven but in other colonies, and that quite a few—such as “No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath” and “No one shall . . . make minced pies”—were fictitious. They were published by Rev. Samuel Peters, an Anglican who fled Connecticut in 1774 after mobs attacked him for his pro-British views.

In reality, the term blue laws predated Peters. The earliest known occurrence, discovered by scholar Joel Berson, was in the New-York Mercury on March 3, 1755. The article—a satire of Congregationalism in neighboring Connecticut—imagined Congregationalists imposing their “Blue Laws” on Anglicans.

Why “blue”? Legend has it that the laws were printed on blue paper. But printing presses were rare in colonial Connecticut and blue paper expensive, so that theory is extremely unlikely. The real reason is, so far, unknown.

Rule of Thumb

Feminist writers have attributed the expression rule of thumb to a common-law doctrine allowing a husband to beat his wife if he used an instrument no bigger around than his thumb. The eighteenth-century English judge said to have condoned thumb-sized wife beating was Francis Buller—who was satirized in a 1782 cartoon that shows him peddling “Sticks of a Lawful Size for Family Discipline.”

But there is no record that Buller issued any such ruling. “A searching investigation,” one historian wrote in 1870, found “no substantial evidence” that Buller ever expressed such an opinion. Further, no known reported case applies anything like the thumb standard. The likelihood is that the story, though current at the time, was pure rumor.

Etymologically, rule of thumb is documented as early as the 1600s. Lexicographer James Clapp writes that “the phrase undoubtedly derives from the use of the thumb as a measuring tool.”


The term shyster has eclipsed predecessors like pettifogger as the most insulting term for an unscrupulous lawyer. Conjectural etymologies have derived shyster from a nineteenth-century colloquial sense of shy, meaning “disreputable”; from a nineteenth-century attorney named Scheuster; and from Shakespeare’s Shylock.

But 30 years ago a New-York Historical Society librarian found evidence that the word was popularized in the 1840s by a New York politician and editor, Mike Walsh. An 1843 article by Walsh in his newspaper, The Subterranean, reveals that he picked up shyster from an attorney operating at the notorious “Tombs” prison. That attorney, Cornelius Terhune, had clearly based the word on the German Scheisser (“worthless fellow”—literally, “shitter”). Terhune has earned a modest place in etymological history as the coiner of a disreputable word with a noxious origin. 


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