21/5/18 The Meaning of Argot

The jargon, that is, the full range of specialized vocabulary, devised by lawyers to save themselves time and space in communicating with each other, and occasionally even to conceal meaning from those uninitiated into the law.

Argot covers a broad range of legal vocabulary from the almost slangy (horse case) to the almost technically precise (res ipsa loquitur). And although an expression that is labeled “argot” fails to rise to the level of a term of art, it remains a useful bit of shorthand for presenting ideas that would ordinarily need explaining in other, more circumlocutory terms if persons who lack experience in the law are to understand them.

Argot has a strong in-group property, which is acceptable when one lawyer talks with another or addresses a judge. Argot is unacceptable when the purpose of using it is to demonstrate how much more the speaker or writer knows as a specialist than ordinary listeners or readers do. The intended audience, then, should be the primary concern of a lawyer in deciding which words to use to express himself or herself intelligibly.

As an example of argot, the phrase case on all fours denotes “a reported case in which the facts and law are so closely similar to the one at hand as to be indistinguishable from it.” This phrase of four short words is much more economical than the definition. But useful as it is to lawyers, it remains inscrutable, unless explained, to virtually all laymen.