LawProse Lesson 375: Lawyers’ Contributions to the English Language

LawProse Lesson 375: Lawyers’ Contributions to the English Language

Few realize just how important lawyers have been to English-language studies. The first English-language dictionary (John Rastell, 1523) was by a lawyer—a law dictionary that antedated the first general dictionary (Robert Cawdrey, 1604) by 81 years. The first dictionaries to cite authorities and stress etymology were likewise by a lawyer (Thomas Blount, 1656, 1670). That should come as no surprise: lawyers are devoted to citing authorities.

Two American lawyers played important roles.

Lindley Murray (1745–1826) had a thriving New York law practice. He was a mentor to John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States. After retiring and moving to York, England, he wrote his English Grammar (1795)—which became so popular and influential that Murray acquired the moniker “the father of English grammar.”

Noah Webster (1758–1843) was a Connecticut lawyer who studied law with Oliver Ellsworth, our third Chief Justice. Webster devoted most of his life to writing books: grammars, dictionaries, and essays. He is often referred to not only as “the father of the American dictionary” but also as “the father of American copyright law.” A man of many accomplishments, he is also sometimes referred to, believe it or not, as “the father of public health” or “the father of epidemiology.”

The first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Herbert Coleridge (1830–1861), was a barrister. He got the great enterprise going before an untimely death. Given that law is a profession of words—language being our only instrument—it’s hardly surprising that lawyers would play an outsized role in promoting linguistic studies.

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