In addition to the scores of specific words and phrases dissected in Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions, we also discuss more generally what may be the most ridiculed characteristic of legal language — its predilection for redundancy: “aid and abet,” “over and above,” “goods and chattels,” “ordered, adjudged, and decreed,” and so on and so forth. In law school it was explained to me that this was the result of combining words from Old English (like goods) with substantially synonymous words of French origin (like chattels) to assure comprehension in an age in which both languages were used in England, particularly in legal contexts.
But this common explanation doesn’t hold water. Aid and abet, for example, are both from French; over and above are both native English. In Lawtalk we point out a number of considerations that fostered — and in many cases still foster — the use of such phrases, such as the fear that omitting some customary word would open the door to an argument that some shade of meaning is not covered. A factor now mostly forgotten is that for centuries court clerks, and even some lawyers, were paid by the page — an approach unaccountably neglected in the search for alternatives to billing by the hour, about which Beth Thornburg wrote in this space two days ago. And we emphasize an even more overlooked factor: that the use of redundant expressions is not specifically a lawyerly habit, but a common stylistic feature of general English, sometimes adding gravity (e.g. wrack and ruin) and sometimes whimsy (jot and tittle).
An e-mail the other day from Eugene Volokh, however, raises the interesting question of how redundant such phrases really are. He noted that abet historically referred to verbal encouragement […]