Book Review - The Wolters Kluwer Bouvier Law Dictionary, Desk Edition

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The Wolters Kluwer Bouvier Law Dictionary, Desk Ed., General Editor: Stephen Michael Sheppard. Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2012. Hardcover, 2 volumes, $145.00. ISBN: 978-1454806110.

In 1839, John Bouvier published the first dictionary written for an American legal audience titled A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America, and the Several States of the American Union. A naturalized American born in France, Bouvier was baffled as to why American lawyers constantly consulted English authorities and based their legal arguments on how foreign English authorities were or were not applicable in the United States. He felt available English law dictionaries could not adequately define emerging “New World” legal concepts in a non-feudal, republican context. Judge Bouvier's response was an encyclopedic dictionary that carefully expressed a point-of-view fitting the relatively new country and legal system. Not only was it a dictionary, it was the first “secondary source” for American law.  Bouvier’s work became the "go-to" compendium for American lawyers and jurists through the early Twentieth Century.

After Bouvier's death in 1851, the dictionary continued to be published under the editorships of Francis Rawle, Daniel Angell Gleason, and William Edward Baldwin until the 1940s. By that time, Bouvier's competitors included Black's, Ballantine's, and countless other legal treatises that described law in the United States. Bouvier was relegated to law library bone-yards where it sat gathering dust, awaiting a trip to the recycle bin.

Thankfully for wordsmiths and lexiconophiles everywhere, Prof. Stephen Michael Sheppard (University of Arkansas) and Wolters Kluwer Law & Business saw the potential in this title and resurrected it from obscurity. The new version of the dictionary titled The Wolters Kluwer Bouvier Law Dictionary (WKBLD) defines over 8,000 legal terms in two volumes. The desktop edition retains the unique layout of Bouvier's original, with the added benefit of modern terms and usage notes. The publisher has also created dictionary apps for mobile, non-print users.

Like an encyclopedia, the dictionary is arranged alphabetically by concept. So, while a “regular” dictionary (like Black’s) may put “Flotsam” under “F” and “Jetsam” under “J” and “Shipwreck” under “S”, WKBLD lists those three words in “S” under the general heading of “Salvage” so that the user can put the word into a broader context. There are adequate cross-references to guide the uninitiated to the proper general heading location.

The WKBLD’s entry for “Salvage, Shipwreck” is typical. It begins with a general “plain English” definition for the legal concept. In smaller, italicized print underneath, there is a note about the concept’s derivation that may include etymological notes or summaries from cases, law reviews, the Bible, or other relevant sources. These “derivation notes” are summaries written in “plain English” and help the user understand the evolution of the legal concept. Next (also in small italicized print) are usage notes that quote sources properly using the word. Finally, the entry ends with “See also” notes that guide the user to similar legal concepts.

Compared to other dictionaries, WKBLD does lack some key features like the pronunciation signals found in Ballantine's Law Dictionary (Lexis-Nexis) or a publisher’s standardized cross-reference arrangement like the Key Number System in Black’s (West). However, compared to either of those dictionaries, WKBLD provides more depth for included words. Also, WKBLD draws upon Wolter Kluwer’s broad publication catalog and includes many specialized,  international, and comparative law terms that may not be included in other legal dictionaries (such as Istihsan, Kal va-homer, and Yakuza).

Additionally, volume 2 includes three appendixes: The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution; Biographical Index (Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and Others Who Have Influenced the Law); and Abbreviations Used in Bouvier, 1853. Some users may find these helpful, if they can remember that they are included in this publication.

As a non-attorney law librarian, I have often felt that the legal dictionaries on the market did not adequately describe terms for someone who didn’t take a particular class in law school or never practiced. The world of legal practice, after all, includes more people than those who have J.D. degrees: we have paralegals in law firms, clerks in courts, pro se litigants in public libraries, and students in academia. I think that adding this dictionary to a collection will especially help those patron groups who need context to understand a word. As such, this dictionary would be useful in any type of library.

Holly Lakatos is the law librarian at the state Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District in Sacramento, California.

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