In the new issue of ABA Journal, legal writing expert (and Black's Law Dictionary editor) Bryan A. Garner poses a legal vocabulary challenge. Inspired by a 1948 textbook, Garner's multiple-choice quiz offers twenty words which are not commonly found in everyday conversation, but do appear with some frequency in American court opinions (ranging from dozens of cases, to more than a thousand). So far, only four test-takers have managed a perfect score, according to Garner's Twitter feed. How did your vocabulary skills stack up?
If your quiz score was disappointing, don't despair – Garner offers his favorite vocabulary-building tip in the article. He recommends jotting down unfamiliar words as you encounter them, and then consulting a dictionary once you have amassed a good-sized list. (He suggests avoiding the temptation to perform an immediate look-up on a mobile device, as his method improves long-term retention of the definitions.)
Fortunately, you have a number of dictionaries available in the Goodson Law Library and elsewhere at Duke. Current editions of dictionaries (both general and legal) are available in the library's Reference collection. Although these items cannot be checked out and removed from the library, they're always available for consultation. Stands in the Reading Room hold the latest edition of Black's Law Dictionary (near the center staircase) and Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (near the windows). Additional print dictionaries in the Law Library can be found with a catalog search for "English language – Dictionaries".
If you need to take your vocabulary lessons on the go (despite Garner's best advice), many dictionaries are available at your fingertips. The Oxford Dictionary of English (3d ed. 2010) can be accessed online with a Duke University NetID and password, as can its super-sized granddaddy, the Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a free online site for its popular dictionaries and thesauri.
Many legal dictionaries are also available online. Black's Law Dictionary can be searched on Westlaw; LexisNexis offers Ballentine's Law Dictionary. Free law dictionaries are provided on FindLaw and Nolo Press.
For assistance with locating print or online dictionaries, it is perpetually prudent to query a professional. In other words, be sure to Ask a Librarian.