Scrabble and Law French
Under the rules of Scrabble, one cannot use non-English words. As it happens, I have married into a family that is intensely competitive about Scrabble and not above a captious reading of the rules. Naturally enough, the question arises of whether or not words in “law French” can be used in Scrabble.
Law French, of course, is the bastardized version of French that was used by the English law courts from about 1250 until about 1500. The important thing to realize about “law French” is that it is not the same thing as French, and it never was. Rather, David Franklin has observed that “law French” seems to have sounded much more like the sort of French spoken in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. To give you some feel for the language, here is an example from a 17th century case:
Richardson Chief Justice de Common Banc al assises de Salisbury in Summer 1631 fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony, que puis son condemnation ject un brickbat a le dit justice, que narrowly mist, et pur ceo immediately fuit indictment drawn per Noy envers le prisoner et son dexter manus ampute et fix al gibbet, sur que luy mesme immediatement hange in presence de Court.
Not surprisingly, actual French people who have had the misfortune to become acquainted with “law French” refuse to accept it as their own language. For example, a French diplomat during the reign of Elizabeth I wrote that it “may be worthily compared to some old ruines of some faire building, where so many brambles and thorns are grown, that scarecely it appeareth that ever there had bin any house.”
Not surprisingly, this creates problem for Scrabble. Consider, for example, the words like trover, replevin, or detinue. It is not enough to claim that these are terms that are frequent in ordinary (to the extent that legalese is ordinary) conversation. I have tried that argument and lost. The response is that there are any number of Latin and other phrases that are used regularly by English speakers that are nevertheless verboten in Scrabble. For example, the word “verboten” is German. Likewise, the frequent use of, say, the phrase “vox populi” does not mean that either vox or populi can be used as Scrabble words. Detinue, my in-laws insist, is just a French word that lawyers use. Lawyers also use Latin words, they argue, and we are not giving those to you. My response is to argue that they aren’t actually French words at all. Indeed, some variations, such as “replevy” or “repleviable” were never words even in the old Norman French from which “law French” is descended.
To which they respond, “Fine. So lawyers have their own special pseudo-French language. We’re still not going to recognize it as English.”