Latin Legal Terms
Throughout the various periods of Latin, the language has functioned as a pragmatic tool of communication, a medium of poetry and history, and an official language of the learned. In the Medieval and Renaissance periods especially, Latin took hold as the language of diplomacy, university, and theology throughout Europe. This adoption of Latin during these periods has had a major impact on English with the expansion the English lexicon and the use of Latin as a means to express sentiment through various phrases and mottos.
In no other area of learning has Latin had such an important impact than on law. The legal profession today is filled with Latin phrases describing various situations, circumstances, and legal procedures that make this area of study that much more difficult to grasp by the lay person. However, these phrases provide a means through which students of Latin can explore a more practical side of the language. Translation of Latin legal phrases also offers an opportunity to experience firsthand the intricacies of Latin’s grammatical constructions.
The term animus nocendi refers to the state of mind of an accused person when he/she committed a crime. It answers the question of what were the person’s intentions at the time the crime occurred. In many judicial systems, some people are excused from a crime because animus nocendi cannot be established. This is especially true for minors, the mentally ill, or people who did not intend to commit a crime but whose actions caused damage to people or property. In these cases, a crime is considered to have been committed yet those responsible for the crime are not held accountable.
The word animus in Latin has many meanings, but, as a one-word definition, “mind” is appropriate. In Classical Latin, the word was often used to imply the spirit of one’s existence. In the plural, the word is often taken to mean courage. Hence, mind is a reasonable approximation.
Nocendi is the gerund form of the verb noceo (nocere, nocui, nociturus), a second conjugation verb meaning to harm or hurt. As with most Latin gerunds, the tell-tale –nd– demonstrates the use of a verbal noun. Recall that the gerund form of a verb is identified in English with the addition of the –ing ending to the verb stem. A gerund functions as a noun in a sentence and declines as any other second declension noun. In this case, the –i ending in nocendi indicates that the verbal noun is in the genitive case, the case of possession. Taken together, the phrase animus nocendi can be literally translated as “mind of harming,” i.e. someone whose intentions were to harm another.
When a legal dispute has been settled, one may say that the question of the case has fallen, i.e. the dispute is no longer in question. This phrase is often used when a settlement has been reached or when one or both parties have chosen to no longer pursue the dispute (the question). The abbreviation CQ is also used by fact checkers who have verified something and indicate this abbreviation in the text to show that the fact is no longer in question. The abbreviated CQ refers to the Latin phrase Cadit Quaestio.
The word cadit is a form of the word cado (cadere, cecidi, casum), which means to fall. Cadit is the third person singular present active indicative form of the word and, absent a subject, may be translated as he/she/it is falling, falls, or does fall. As a third conjugation verb, cadit is formed by taking the second principal part cadere, dropping the –re ending, and adding the personal ending, in this case –t. Notice that as with most third conjugation verbs, the –e– changes to an –i– in the present tense. Hence cadit is appropriate, not cadet. Cadet is the future form of the word.
Quaestio is the noun form of the verb quaero (quaerere, quaesivi, quaesitum) which literally means to ask, seek, or question. Recall that many Latin verbs can be turned into nouns by taking the fourth principle part, the past participle, and adding –io to the end. Then, the noun declines as any third declension noun with respect to the newly-formed noun’s gender. In this case, the feminine noun quaestio is declined as:
- quaestio (singular), quaestiones (plural)
- quaestionis (singular), quaestionum (plural)
- quaestioni (singular), quaestionibus (plural)
- quaestionem (singular), quaestiones (plural)
- quaestione (singular), quaestionibus (plural)
As a nominative singular noun, quaestio is serving as the phrase’s subject. Taken together, the phrase cadit quaestio can be literally translated as “the question is falling,” “the question falls,” or “the question does fall.” For simplicity’s sake, “the question falls” is likely the best choice.
The two Latin phrases discussed above provide a practical glimpse into the use of the gerund and the formation of Latin nouns from a verb’s past participial form (fourth principal part). As a lesson in Latin grammar, translation of phrases such as these allows the Latin student to practice translation while given only limited information about the purpose of the phrase.
While often lacking a direct object, indirect object, and other contextual sentences, translation of legal phrases is as much a puzzle as a practical exercise. In addition, it gives the law student an appreciation for the derivation of the Latin phrases so often found in this field of study.