Our legal vocabulary is overladen with Latin words and phrases. Often, I find that they are misspelled. Today’s blog is devoted to some of the more common errors that I’ve noticed over the years.
De Minimus. Many Latin words end in “us”. “Minimus”, meaning the smallest, is one such word. In Section 202 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (P.L. 107-204), Congress established a “de minimus” exception to the audit committee pre-approval requirement. Congress spelled it wrongly, however. The reason is that Latin is an inflected language. That means that the endings of nouns change with the case. “De” is a preposition meaning about. Nouns that follow “de” are generally in the ablative case. This means that the “us” case ending must change to “is” (in the plural). A correct usage is “De minimis lex non curat” (the law doesn’t care about the smallest things). Congress is not alone in error, “de minimus” appears in several California court opinions, including Strand Improv. Co. v. Long Beach, 173 Cal. 765, 772 (1916), Phillips v. San Luis Obispo County Dep’t of Animal Regulations, 183 Cal. App. 3d 372, 376 (1986), and Good Shepherd Lutheran Home v. State Bd. of Equalization, 139 Cal. App. 3d 876, 884 (1983); two California statutes, Pub. Res. Code § 16051(b) & Health & Safety Code § 34179.5(b)(3); numerous California regulations, including 10 CCR § 2590.1(d); and the CalPERS’ Board of Administration Gift Policy.
Prospecti. When you want to make a Latin word plural, you change the ending. In many cases, a Latin word that ends in “us” is made plural in the nominative case by changing the “us” to “i”. Thus, I have one friend (amicus) and you have many (amici). One might therefore assume that the plural of “prospectus” is “prospecti”. Unfortunately, that would be wrong. The reason is that all Latin nouns are categorized by declensions. Words in the second declension are made plural by changing “us” to “i”. “Prospectus” isn’t a second declension noun. It’s a fourth declension noun. Fourth declension noun plurals simply end in “us” (with a long “u” instead of a short “u”). Thus, the plural of “prospectus” is “prospectus” but the English plural form, “prospectuses”, is preferred. Judges sometimes make the mistake of referring to “prospecti” See, e.g., Schlake v. McConnell, 83 Cal. App. 725, 728 (1927) and Weaver v. United California Bank, 350 F. Supp. 1373, 1374 (N.D. Cal. 1972). “Nexi” as a plural of “nexus” is wrong for the same reason – “nexus” is a fourth declension noun and the plural would either be “nexus” or “nexuses”. I’m not aware of any published California opinions that use “nexi” but there are numerous federal court decisions, including Agudas Chasidei Chabad v. Russian Fed’n, 528 F.3d 934, 940 (D.C. Cir. 2008).
Conundra. Many Latin nouns that end in “um” are made plural by substituting “a”. Thus, one forum, but many fora. The word “conundrum” sounds as if it might be Latin and follow the same principle. “Conundrum” isn’t a Latin, however. Thus, its plural form is “conundrums” as in “I must have my crotchets! And my conundrums!” Ben Jonson, The Fox, Act V. sc. 7. Courts have missed this point as well. See, e.g., Johnson v. Paradise Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 251 F.3d 1222, 1226 (9th Cir. 2001).
Data. Not all second declension Latin nouns end in “us”. Some end in “um”. These nouns are made plural by substituting “a”. Thus, “datum” is a singular noun and “data” is plural. It’s easy, however, to mistake “data” for a singular form and write “the data is” as the California Supreme Court did in People v. Wilson, 38 Cal. 4th 1237, 1250 (2006). The California legislature has enacted numerous statutes that include the phrase “the data is” including Government Code Section 6254.2(c). Even the Commissioner of Corporations (not the incumbent) made this mistake in 10 CCR § 2126.96.36.199(a)(5).