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The Legal Reference Book Every Lawyer Should Have in 2022

March 04, 2022

By Brian Craig | Attorney

Burton’s Legal Thesaurus

While lawyers and judges have relied on Black’s Law Dictionary as the preeminent legal dictionary for generations, every lawyer in America should also utilize Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. Released in July 2021 and now in its sixth edition, Burton’s Legal Thesaurus remains the preeminent thesaurus in the legal field.

As Justice William O. Douglas penned in his 1979 foreword to Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, “[t]he root of all language is individual word. Often, it is the use of a specific word or term upon which a case or controversy may hinge. It is through the use of such a tool as the Legal Thesaurus that one may find the precise term to fit the nuances of a particular situation.”

Now in its 40th year of publication, the latest edition of Burton's Legal Thesaurus includes 3,000 newly added full entries, including “nuclear option,” “false narrative,” and “catch kill.” At 2,181 pages, the new edition packs a punch and features the latest developments in the lexicon of the legal profession. While many different types of thesauri exist, including various versions of Roget’s Thesaurus, Burton’s Legal Thesaurus remains the only reference book of its kind ever written for the legal profession specifically written for lawyers and judges.

In finding the right word or meaning of a word, lawyers, judges, and legal professionals may consider looking at Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. As one federal judge declared, “[w]ords are the tools of the lawyer’s craft.” See Hollcroft v. Dep't of Treasury, I.R.S., 687 F. Supp. 510, 517 (E.D. Cal. 1988). Courts often rely on Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, in conjunction with other reference books such as Black’s Law Dictionary, to find the meaning of a word. For example, in construing the word “disposition” in the context of regulations authorizing the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and immigration judges (IJ) to temporarily pause removal proceedings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently cited Black’s Law Dictionary, English language dictionaries, and Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. The Third Circuit quoted Burton’s Legal Thesaurus that synonyms for “disposition” include “conclusion, decision, . . . final settlement of a matter, finding, order, pronouncement, . . . resolution, settlement, [and] solution.” Arcos Sanchez v. Att'y Gen. United States of Am., No. 20-1843, 2021 WL 1774965 (3d Cir. May 5, 2021).

In recent years, the highest courts in the states of Washington, California, and Kansas have cited Burton’s Legal Thesaurus to construe the meaning of words. For example, the California Supreme Court cited Burton's Legal Thesaurus to construe “administer” as being synonymous with “carry out,” “control,” and “direct.” See Ass’n of California Ins. Companies v. Jones, 2 Cal. 5th 376, 391, 386 P.3d 1188, 1197 (2017). Likewise, the Kansas Supreme Court cited Burton’s Legal Thesaurus construing the word “comparable” in State v. Wetrich, 307 Kan. 552, 560, 412 P.3d 984, 990 (2018). And the Washington Supreme Court cited Burton’s Legal Thesaurus recognized that the “just” is cross-referenced under “fair” to interpret the word “just.” See Washington Trucking Associations v. State Emp. Sec. Dep't, 188 Wash. 2d 198, 224–25, 393 P.3d 761, 775 (2017). Whether drafting a motion in limine to exclude reference to a particular word or phrase at trial, such as a “patent troll,” or writing a brief, lawyers should consult Burton’s Legal Thesaurus to find the definition of terms and related terms.

Burton's Legal Thesaurus is not just helpful for litigators. Transactional lawyers who draft contracts will also find using Burton's Legal Thesaurus helpful. In addition, legal researchers can utilize the thesaurus to find related terms to find the write case on point.

Besides the print version with the striking blue soft cover, the new edition of Burton's Legal Thesaurus is also available in ebook format on both Lexis and Amazon’s Kindle. One regret is that Burton’s Legal Thesaurus is not available in full-text search on Westlaw. But the electronic version available through Amazon’s Kindle should work for a variety of electronic devices. With modern law library, reference books need not take up voluminous space on a shelf—although law books in print still possess an aesthetic value as décor.

Authored and edited by William C. Burton, a partner with a prestigious law firm in New York, the latest edition of Burton’s Legal Thesaurus continues the standard set four decades ago. Burton, who also established the non-profit Burton Foundation and the Burton Awards run in association with the Library of Congress to recognized excellence in the legal profession, has left a legacy to the legal profession that will continue for years. Like Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, William Burton has dedicated countless hours to create an essential legal reference book.

Legal professionals should consider the value of thesauri as helpful and persuasive secondary sources, in conjunction with dictionaries, to ascertain the plain and ordinary meaning of particular words found in statutes, regulations, and contracts.

The word thesaurus comes from the word treasure in Latin. Indeed, the latest edition of Burton’s Legal Thesaurus embodies that origin: treasure.

Black’s Law Dictionary