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You Got Latin in My English! Legal Terms, Part 1

It's time for another edition of "You Got Latin in My English!" This series focuses on Latin terms that are commonly used in English; I provide the literal meanings of the terms and then explain how to use them in context.

In this post—the first of at least 2 on this subtopic—I focus on some common legal terms. The seven terms covered below are very commonly used in legal cases, so even if you aren't too familiar with them, you've probably heard them on Law & Order and the like. After reading this post, you will be able to better understand and converse about these common legal terms: affidavit, habeas corpus, in absentia, nolo contendere, post mortem, pro bono, and subpoena.

You Got Latin In My English! Legal Terms, Part 1: affidavit, habeas corpus, in absentia, nolo contendere, postmortem, pro bono, and subpoena


Literal Translation: "He has sworn."

Many people have heard the word affidavit, and most of them are aware that it refers to some kind of document, but there is still a lot of confusion regarding exactly what kind of document it is. An affidavit is a written, sworn statement that is submitted as evidence in court. You can probably guess how this term came to be, as the literal Latin meaning is "He has sworn."

An affidavit is typically used in place of testimony for situations when it is impractical or unnecessary for a person to physically come into court to testify. For instance, an affidavit may be used so that an expert can affirm that a piece of art is a forgery, or so that a witness can present their version of events. Here are a couple examples of affidavit in action:

The jewelry expert submitted an affidavit to the court attesting to the stolen jewels' value. The grand jury considered over a dozen witness affidavits regarding the events of March 8.

Habeas Corpus

Literal Translation: "May you have the body."

Habeas corpus is one of the more difficult Latin terms to intuit the meaning of based on its literal definition ("May you have the body"). In this term, the corpus ("body") is the physical presence of a person—specifically, a person who has been arrested and who is awaiting trial. Habeas ("may you have") is essentially a reminder or order, so the full term essentially means "please bring this person to court."

This term is common in legal systems that are based on British law, including in the U.S. (Most other systems have a similar right, but it's not always known by this name.) Judges in these countries commonly issue a document called a "writ of habeas corpus" to order the arresting authorities to produce a suspect in court. The person will then have the opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of their detention and may be released pending trial.

Detainees in these countries have a right to request such an order (i.e., a right to habeas corpus). The U.S. Constitution, for instance, guarantees the right of habeas corpus. The goal of this right is to prevent governments from holding suspects indefinitely without a trial. Detainees (or, technically, their lawyers) can request writs of habeas corpus if they are being held without a trial or are otherwise unlawfully detained. Recently, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees have invoked this right while being held without trial in detention centers.

Here are a couple uses of habeas corpus in sentences:

Lincoln suspended habeas corpus for some suspects in the name of national security. After 30 days and no trial, Roger was finally able to secure a habeas corpus hearing.

In Absentia

Literal Translation: "in (one's) absence"

The term in absentia is one of those that you can probably figure out without even knowing Latin, as it means what it looks like: "in (one's) absence." In legal terms, it is used to refer to a legal proceeding in which a key person is not present—often, a trial without the person who is on trial. It can also be used more generally; for instance, in organizations that hold votes, a member may be able to vote in absentia (i.e., without being at the meeting when the vote is held).

Here is how you use in absentia in a sentence:

Mark kept disrupting the proceedings, so the remainder of his trial was held in absentia. Most of the city councilors could not attend, so they voted on the measure in absentia.

Nolo Contendere

Literal Translation: "I do not wish to dispute."

You are no doubt familiar with the two most common pleas for legal defendants: "not guilty" and "guilty." In the United States, nolo contendere (which literally means "I do not wish to dispute") refers to another plea that is available in certain situations. The literal meaning gives a strong hint of what this plea represents; a nolo contendere plea is used when the defendant doesn't want to fight the charges but also doesn't wish to simply admit guilt. It is also commonly known as a "no contest" plea.

The result is that the defendant avoids a trial and accepts the punishment for the charges against them—but without being officially convicted. Thus, the punishment is typically the same as a guilty plea, but the future consequences may be less severe (e.g., because the person will not have a conviction on their record).

A nolo contendere plea is most commonly used for misdemeanor crimes such as traffic violations, jaywalking, and public indecency. It has restrictions; for instance, the judge typically must accept such a plea before it can be officially entered. Many countries (including the U.K. and Canada) do not allow "no contest" pleas at all. Here's an example of it in use:

Rather than endure the embarrassment of a trial, Peter issued a nolo contendere plea and accepted his punishment for driving under the influence.


Literal Translation: "after death"

This term is written as one word, postmortem, as a noun or as a modifier before a noun, and as two words, post mortem, when used as an adverb after the term it modifies. It literally means "after death"; in legal senses, it refers to something that occurs after the death of a victim (e.g., a postmortem injury). In particular, the noun version of postmortem is short for "postmortem examination," and it refers to an autopsy. You may also see the adverb form in phrases such as "the body was moved post mortem."

This term is also used in other contexts (especially in medicine). Here are a few examples of postmortem in action:

The postmortem revealed that the victim died from blunt force trauma to the head. The defense attorney argued that the victim's clothes were removed post mortem. The postmortem stiffening of joints is known as "rigor mortis."

Pro Bono

Literal Translation: "for good"

You've likely heard of a lawyer representing a client pro bono; this term literally means "for good," but in practical terms, it just means "for free." Layers will typically take on pro bono cases to help a particular person (such as a friend), to improve the community, or to improve their public image. You can also use pro bono to refer to other services that are provided without charge (though the legal usage is the most common):

Kim had a high-paying law job, but she felt fulfillment only from her pro bono cases. The accounting firm added some pro bono clients to enhance its standing in the community.


Literal Translation: "under penalty"

Subpoena is another term that many people have heard often but may not know the exact meaning of (other than recognizing it as a legal document). It refers to a document that requires the recipient to fulfill a legal duty; there is a penalty for not complying with a subpoena—typically a fine or a small amount of jail time. This penalty is seen in the origins of the term, which literally means "under penalty."

There are two major types of subpoenas: one that requires a person to testify in court, and another that requires a person or organization to produce evidence (e.g., documents) that is relevant to a case. Both uses are very common throughout the English-speaking world.

Though usually a noun, subpoena can also be a verb (referring to the act of filing such a legal order). Here are a couple uses in context:

The subpoena required AT&T to provide the suspect's phone records for April and May. Because she did not testify and thus failed to comply with the subpoena, Ana had to pay a $1000 fine. The judge subpoenaed Ricky's financial records as evidence in the fraud case.

That's all for this edition of You Got Latin in My English! Stay tuned for Part 2 on legal terms later in the week.

Are there any other Latin terms that you would like me to explain in a future post in this series? If so, let me know in the comments or via email ( And of course, if you don't want to worry about the proper usage of these terms—or about making sure your writing is grammatical, clear, concise, and well-structured—then please request a quote or consultation at I'd love to help you improve your writing!



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