Slanging it Out: The Vernacular in the Courtroom, 1872-1942

From the Belfast News-Letter, 5 March 1930:

“The use of the letters ‘BL’ after the name of a barrister-at-law was condemned by the Lord Chief Justice (the right Hon William Moore) in the King’s Bench division of the Northern Law Courts yesterday.

Legal documents before his Lordship included the name of a lady barrister who was designated ‘BL.’

“It is only used in Irish newspapers’ the LCJ said. ‘You never see it in the English newspapers.  It is a vulgarism, and the Bar ought to protest against it.’

Mr Murphy KC MP – I am afraid the Bar is partly responsible.  In Dublin, letters were frequently addressed this way.”

The first reported judicial criticism of slang in court was an 1872 rebuke administered by Vice Chancellor Bacon regarding the use of the phrase ‘turning up,’ which he declared to be a coarse and vulgar term.  The barrister concerned quickly agreed that the English language had somewhat deteriorated at the Bar. 

A generation later, there were fears that this decline might have extended to the Bench.  A 1905 article in the Evening Echo noted that “the tendency towards the use of free and easy colloquialisms by men occupying high judicial positions has become increasingly noticeable recently,” giving as examples the use of ‘Good Golly’ by Judge Gwilym Williams in Cardiff County Court and Mr Justice Grantham’s description of the arrangement of the Chelmsford Assizes as ‘taking the cake as far as inconvenience was concerned’.  It could also have mentioned, but didn’t, the statement the same year of Deputy Judge Sayman, at Southwark County Court, that he ‘didn’t care a hang.’   The article pondered whether in the future judges might express surprise by such exclamations as ‘Great Scott’ or ‘Jehoshaphat!’ or signify scepticism by remarking ‘Rats,’ ‘Walker’ or making a reference to the Marines.

Not all the judiciary subscribed to such laxity. In a 1908 interview with the Morning Leader, Judge Willis, also of Southwark County Court, freely acknowledged his known dislike of all vulgar expressions, explaining that this was in no sense due to his being offended with the person using the expression, since he should certainly be unfit for his judicial office if he allowed himself to be affected by narrow means, poor taste or vulgarity, but rather due to early parental discipline regarding precise use of language.

The slang debate extended into Ireland as well, with the Irish Independent of September 16, 1916 reporting that:

“Protest came from the Bench the other day because a witness referred to a soldier as ‘a tommy’.  Legal ponderosity goes on for ever.  It is not so long since a barrister was reprimanded by a County Court Judge for saying an absent defendant had not ‘turned up’.  ‘Pray, remarked his honour, do not use such slipshod English.  There used to be a dignitary of the Four Courts before whom it was calamitous to say ‘wire’ instead of telegram.  And yet an English judge recently described an advocate’s argument as ‘rot’.”

Although they might not approve of slang, Irish judges were at least prepared to acknowledge understanding of its meaning.  Although one English judge professed difficulty understanding the term ‘mug,’ and had to have it explained to him, Judge Craig, Recorder of Belfast, had no such problem when adjudicating on a 1917 claim by Carmine Valentine, ice cream vendor, Falls Road, for breach of contract in the sale of a motor car, saying that “I consider this was a muggish transaction, and there was a great deal of mug about the case.”

As far as Free State judges were concerned, the most determined crusader against the use of slang was Mr Justice Hanna of the High Court.  In July 1927, counsel’s use of the term ‘bike’ rather than ‘bicycle’ led this judge to issue a formal rebuke to the Irish Bar in respect of its increasing use of colloquialisms.  He returned to the topic in December of the same year in a speech delivered at the prizegiving of St Andrew’s School, St Stephen’s Green, noting that such jargon was not entirely confined to the younger generation and in fact the only place really free of it was the pulpit.  In his view, it was due to a lack of vocabulary caused by inadequate teaching of the English language and composition and he urged those who had control of education to instil in their pupils a desire to use proper and appropriate language.

The following report, however, demonstrates a certain mellowing of attitude:

“In the Free State High Court yesterday a barrister informed Mr Justice Hanna that the case he was trying was heard by the District Justice in the Gaeltacht all the evidence was given in English, but now some of the evidence would be given in Irish and an interpreter would be required.  ‘I disbelieve in cod,’ added counsel.  Perhaps the judge thought that ‘cod’ was the apt word, at any rate he did not challenge its use.”

There were still some sticklers for formality, and some of them were not judges but journalists.  The Irish Examiner of 26 November 1937 expressed shock at the unseemly behaviour of Mr Justice Charles at the Surrey Assizes, where he not alone admitted knowledge of the phrase ‘having a couple’ but defined the liquid content in question as being probably six pints.

The Belfast Newsletter 5 May 1936, in an article entitled ‘Slang in Court’ complained that

“Barristers now seem to have much greater latitude in the choice of words than they had thirty, or even twenty, years ago. I remember a case in which a judge rebuked counsel who stated that a wire had been sent by his client. ‘Telegram’ is the correct word, Mr X’ he said, adding; ‘I do not like members of the Bar to use loose language when addressing me.”

The advent of World War 2 only served to exacerbate the problem of loose legal talk, with the Western People of 7 December 1940 remarking that

“American slang having invaded most places nowadays, it is not very surprising to hear it cropping up now and again in court.  Within the past week or two I have heard a solicitor describe how his client got wise to something or other while on another occasion I recall one of his colleagues speaking about a Guard having got the lowdown.  Even the Bench is not above borrowing an Americanism now and again as a bon mot, and in a recent larceny case our DJ commented on the fact that one youthful delinquent had double crossed the other.  The Circuit Court as a rule manages to keep something of a wig-and-gown restraint on popular adoptions of this kind, but only last week it had to accommodate its ceremonial dignity to the business of dealing with a defendant who had admitted using the expressive term ‘give him the works.’ Judge Moonan, wisely enough, did not attempt to give a definition of the term, telling the jury that the English language had become so distorted that the words used often come to mean something altogether beyond their face value, there was a twisted meaning now about slang and the expression give him the works is a term upon which they would have to place their own interpretation.  The accused was found not guilty.”

Perhaps it was articles like these that led Judge Comyn, at Trim Circuit Court in April 1939, to take the following stand when a counsel in an equity case made use of the term ‘sticking to the money‘: “I don’t want any slang used in this court.  You can speak in English or Irish and I’ll understand you.”

One judge particularly vexed by wartime slang was Mr Justice Langton of the English High Court, exposed to a wide variety of colloquial expressions through his work in admiralty and divorce cases.  ‘I am very old-fashioned,’ he apologised, objecting to the use of the term ‘fed up’, as counsel quickly apologised and substituted the words ‘disturbed and worried.’  The expression ‘led up the garden path,’ often used in divorce cases, also caused him trouble.

Mr Justice Langton did not survive to see the full extent of the linguistic depredations effected by encroaching GIs. The end of his days came on a 1942 summer holiday at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset.   He had been worried about something, and planning to return to London the next day; there were even reports that he had been seen on the train.  After a five-day search, his body was found in the River Parrett.  A subsequent inquest returned an open verdict.   On the 31st July, the occasion of his last appearance in court, counsel had repeatedly used the term ‘Official Receiver,’ when he meant ‘Official Solicitor.’  Mr Justice Langton was kindly and even humorous in response, saying: “We all know the looming figure.  I have every sympathy.  I know he is at the back of all our minds.  But it is a bad sign when anybody is so completely obsessed by him as you appear to be.”  Eerily prescient words for a man about to die in what the Scottish Law Review and Sheriff Court Reports called ‘tragic and mysterious’ circumstances!

One little known fact about Mr Justice Langton is that he was an Irishman, a Roman Catholic from Kilkenny. Just one of many Irish barristers, Catholic and Protestant, who went on to achive eminence in the English legal world! A forgotten tribe perhaps meriting a little more notice!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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