Legal Latin has message for today

The Island Packet has an interesting arrangement of legal tags designed to make a comment on the financial crisis.

Brittle pages fell out as I opened the binder. One of the firmest
sheets read “A Collection of Latin Maxims and Phrases Literally
Translated and Explained by John M. Cottrell, Intended for the use of
Students for all Legal Examinations. Washington, D.C. John Byrne and
Company, Law Book Publishers, 1897.”

An old book, ancient thoughts. But its scattered
leaves hid a stern op-ed article for today’s economy. What was needed
was a librarian to string it all together (English follows Latin in
each sentence):

Quod ab initio non valet, in tractu temporis non
convalescit (That which was void from its commencement does not improve
by lapse of time). Quod turpi ex causa promissum est, non valet (An
immoral consideration will not support a promise).

Nemo dat quod non habet (No one can give what he has
not). Nullus commodum capere potest de injuria sua propria (No one can
obtain an advantage by his own wrong), et delicatus debitor est odiosus
in lege (and an extravagant debtor is contemned in the eye of the law).
Debita sequuntur personam debitoris (Debt follows debtor’s person).

Pacta privata juri publico
derogare non possunt (Private contracts cannot repeal the public
right), et jura publica anteferenda privatis (and public rights are to
be preferred to private ones). Malus usus est abolendus (An evil custom
ought to be abolished). Nemo de domo sua extrahi potest (No one can be
dragged out of his own house)!

Fides est obligatio conscientiae alicujus ad
intentionem alterius (A trust is the obligation of one’s conscience to
fulfill the intention of another). Dona clandestina sunt semper
suspiciosa (Clandestine gifts are always suspicious).

Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (False in one
thing, false in all). Omnia praesumuntur contra spoliatorem (Every
presumption is made against a wrongdoer).

Culpa lata dolo aequiparatur
(Gross negligence is equivalent to intentional wrong). Non quod dictum
est, sed quod factum est, inspicitur (Regard is to be had not to what
is said, but to what is done). Fraus est celare fraudem (He who
conceals a fraud perpetuates one himself).

Qui sentit commodum sentire debet et onus (He who
receives the advantage ought also to suffer the burden). Minatur
innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus (He who spares the guilty threatens
the innocent); qui non improbat, approbat (He who does not blame,

Ubi jus ibi remedium (There is no wrong without a
remedy). Vigilantibus et non dormientibus succurrunt jura (Laws come to
the help of the vigilant, not of the sleepy).

Sed summum jus summa injuria (But where the law is
most strictly administered ,it sometimes causes the greatest wrong).
Scire debes cum quo contrabis (One should know with whom he
contracts).Praestat cautela quam medela (Caution is better than cure).

One person likely to have owned a copy of Professor
Cottrell’s little book was Roscoe Pound, a Dean of the Harvard Law
School. The Web site cited what Pound wrote around
1900: “There is no better way for the student to train himself in the
choice of the very word that will fit his thought than by translation
from Latin and Greek. Thus he develops habits of analysis, habits of
discriminating choice of words, habits of accurate apprehension of the
meaning which another has sought to convey by written words, which lead
to power of expression and to power of clear thinking. Such habits are
worth more to the lawyer than all the information which a modern school
may hope to impart.”

Dennis Adams is the information services coordinator
at the Beaufort County Public Library. He can be reached at

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