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The purpose of this guide is to help researchers locate general and subject-specific legal dictionaries and thesauri. Additionally, this guide provides helpful insight on how to effectively use these resources in legal research.
Last Updated: Jul 10, 2012 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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What are legal dictionaries and thesauri?

Legal dictionaries provide definitions for legal terms, phrases, maxims as well as for common Latin terminology.  Dictionaries vary in the types of information provided.  For example, the more comprehenisve dictionaries provide citations to case law, legal encyclopedias, and other legal secondary sources.  Also, the more comprehensive guides provide pronunication  guides, as well as historical derivations of the term searched.  Often though, dictionaries merely define essential basic terms.

Thesauri, on the other hand, provide synonyms, antonyms, and related concepts.  Basic definitions are often provided as well.


Why are legal dictionaries and thesauri useful?

These resources are used primarily for two reasons.  First, as you may already know, legal terms often have meanings that differ from their non-legal connotations.  A researcher should look up the essential legal terms to make sure that they understand their meaning in the legal context. For example, if you look up the word, "goodwill," on an online legal dictionary you might find that this term has an extensive legal definition.

Goodwill - n. the benefit of a business having a good reputation under its name and regular patronage. Goodwill is not tangible like equipment, right to lease the premises or inventory of goods. It becomes important when a business is sold, since there can be an allocation in the sales price for the value of the goodwill, which is always a subjective estimate. Included in goodwill upon sale may be the right to do business without competition by the seller in the area and/or for a specified period of time. Sellers like the allocation to good will to be high since it is not subject to capital gains tax, while buyers prefer it to be low, because it cannot be depreciated for tax purposes like tangible assets. Goodwill also may be overestimated by a proud seller and believed by an unknowing buyer. See 

But if you look up "goodwill" on, you will see a more general definition.  

Goodwill - noun 

  1. friendly disposition; benevolence; kindness.
  2. cheerful acquiescence or consent.
  3. Commerce. an intangible, salable asset arising from the reputation of a business and its relations with its customers, distinct from the value of its stock and other tangible assets.
As you can see, the general definition does not go into detail all the tax ramifications of goodwill as the definition does. Often, defintions will generate additional words to research, such as "tangible assets" or "subjective estimate," which will lead us to the second reason on why you should use a dictionary.
The second main reason for using dictionaries and thesauri in untangling a research problem is that these tools can help you identify additional research terms, which will ensure your research is comprehensive.

Lexicography: How dictionaries are made.


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