Legal Terms and Word Definitions


A basic knowledge of early Virginia law and other word definitions can be very helpful when trying to determine the meaning of a particular record.  The following are definitions of some of the commonly used legal terms and words used in early Virginia.

abate = an order to suspend or terminate a lawsuit, often due to the death of one of the litigants.

a simpling = collecting wild herbs

ab intestato = died without making a will

administration cum testamento = an administration of an estate granted by the court

        when the deceased person has left a will but did not name an executor;

        or the person named as executor is incapable of acting, or refuses to act,

        as executor

administration de bonis cum testamento annexo = administration ordered by the

        court when the executor or administrator of an estate has died, leaving

        a portion of the estate still unadministered

aft. = after

age of consent = the age at which a person can marry without parental permission

age of contractability = the age below which legal marriages could not be contracted,

whether parents gave permission or not.  The common-law age

in North Carolina at one time was 14 for males and 12 for


age of discretion = the age at which persons could choose their own guardians, usually

age 14

age of majority = the legal age at which a person could make a contract in his own name.

\(Usually, age 21.  This meant that a man could buy land before he was

21, but he could not sell any land until he was 21.)

age of reason = the age at which a child was considered capable of acting responsibly,

usually the age of 7. 

ahnentafel = a chart in tabular form with the person at the top numbered 1, his father

numbered 2, and his mother numbered 3.  Grandparents are numbered

4,5,6 and 7, etc.

ante = before, by

apoplexy = hemorrhage of a blood vessel in a brain; a stroke

b. = born

bap., bapt., bp. = baptized

barleycorn = when used as a measurement, 3 barleycorns lengthwise equal 1 inch

bason = a misspelling of basin (referring to a bowl) often found in old wills

bef. = before

Benefit of Clergy = This term originated in England when any capital sentence could be

appealed to the ecclesiastical courts.  The term was invoked to commute a death sentence

received for one of the many relatively minor crimes that legally warranted it.  The use of

"benefit of clergy" was abolished in 1789.

bequest/devise = Personal property is bequeathed; real property is devised. 

blue laws = laws which prohibited many activities, particularly on Sundays

b.l.w. = bounty land warrant

bounty land warrant = issued by the Secretary of a state to men who were enlisting

        in the military.  These warrants enabled the men to exchange them for

        land to settle on, or sell them to others.  Sometimes heirs of the men

        utilized the warrants.

bur. = buried

ca. = circa (around, about)

capius, alias capius, pluries capius = Orders for a sheriff to arrest, confiscate, attach or other-

wise take something from a litigant in a court case.  Alias capius was a repeat order when

the first one could not be carried out.  Pluries capius was a third try.

chain = 100 links or 4 poles

chancery/equity = Chancery court heard appeals to equity from decisions that had been based

on common law, the unwritten English law based on custom and precedent.  Equity was

the legal system aimed at remedying the inflexibility of the common law to provide a fair

and equitable resolution of a dispute.  Many chancery suits dealt with excuses for failure

to settle debts.  Others were between relatives fighting over a division of property.  These

chancery suits have become a prime source for genealogical data.  Common law and

equity differed from statutory law enacted by a legislature.

chattal = Movable personal property as opposed to land, buildings and attachments to those


chirugeon = a doctor who performs surgery

cit. = the work cited (citato)

congestive fever = malaria

consort = spouse

Court of Oyer and Terminer = A special county court separate from courts held by justices of

the peace.  The literal meaning was "to hear and determine".  This was the court that had

jurisdiction over trials of slaves for capital offenses.

cow common = a public common in colonial times where animals were allowed to pasture

cramp colic = an early term that usually referred to appendicitis

C.S.A. = Confederate States of America

d. = died

dau. = daughter

DB = Deed Book

decd. = deceased

disp. = dispensation

dissolution = death/ending

do. = ditto

dock fever = yellow fever

dower = that part of a husband’s real estate given by law to his wife

dropsy= a symptom of a disease where water is retained in body tissues

d.s. = died single

d.s.p. = (decessit sine prole) died without issue

d.s.p.legit = died without legitimate issue

d.s.p.m. = died without male (mascula) issue

d.v.p. = died during his or her father’s lifetime (vita patris – life of father)

d.v.m. = died during his or her mother’s lifetime (vita matris – life of mother)

dtd. = dated

entail = to devise land on a number of persons in succession, i.e.  "to my son, and upon his death,

to his son," etc.

enteretitis = inflammation of the small intestines

erisipelas/erysipelas = a febrile (fever) disease accompanied by inflammation of

the skin; also called St. Anthony’s fire

escheat = When a patentee died leaving no legal heir, and if no one had purchased that land from

him, the patented land reverted to the crown or, in Northern Virginia after 1692, to the

Proprietor of the Northern Neck. 

extant = currently existing, and not extinct or lost or destroyed, such as an extant will.

fee simple/fee tail = Land held in fee simple could be sold or devised absolutely, without

limitation to any person or heirs.  Land in fee tail referred to a landowner who used the

phrase "and the heirs of my body", thus entailing a piece of land to an heir, and the heirs

of that heir, etc.  In Virginia, fee tail was eliminated and converted to fee simple as of

October 7, 1776.

feoff = (pronounced "fef") to give or sell a fief to; feoffee = a person granted a fief;

    deed of feoffment = transfer of a fief; fief = under feudalism, heritable land held

from a lord in return for service.

flux = an unusually copious flowing of a liquid from the bowels or another organ

freehold = An estate in land held in fee simple, fee tail or for life.

freeholder = defined in 1684 as "a person who holds lands, tenements or

hereditaments for his owne life, for the life of his wife, or for

the life of any other person or persons." \(Hening, comp.  Statutes

at Large,III,26.) Subsequent acts redefined the definition to male,

twenty-one years of age or older, with a freehold of twenty-five acres

with a house, or one hundred acres without a house, and excluded

convicted recusants.  \(Ibid, III, 172-75, 236-46 IV, 475-78)

freeman = one who is eligible to vote.  The date following is the date he was admitted.

furlong = 10 chains or 1/8 mile

Gentleman = a man born into a family of high social standing; a man of independent means who

        does not work for a living and usually held public office; in colonial Virginia, a

        Gentleman could also be a Planter, as wealth was often determined by the

        amount of land a man owned, and the income it generated

glebe = a farm dedicated to the support of the church and placed in the occupancy of

the minister.

grippe = a viral infection resembling an acute case of influenza

hhd. = hogshead (a large barrel or cask)

hide of land = an obsolete measure of land, usually an amount necessary to support

        one family with dependents, or as much land as could be tilled with

        one plow in a year, usually 100 acres

House of Burgesses = the lower part of the Virginia legislature

ibid = the same

imprimis = in early wills, this Latin word referred to ‘first’ or ‘in the first place’

indenture = any deed, written contract or sealed agreement.  The term derives from a deed or

agreement executed in two or more copies, with their edges correspondingly indented for


I.p.m./Inq.p.m. = an inquest held to determine a deceased’s land holdings.  \(Inquisition post

        mortem, usually dated by "regnal year", viz.  3 Henry IV.\)

jail fever = typhus

knt/kt. = knight

land patent = a certificate proving permanent ownership of a piece of land which

        stated that the purchaser was the first to own the land individually

lic. = license

lung fever = pneumonia

lung sickness = tuberculosis

m. = married

m.(1), m.(2) = married first, second, etc.

Merchant = a person whose business is buying and selling goods for profit; a trader, especially

    one in the wholesale trade who deals with foreign countries; a merchant-planter

grew and sold tobacco or other crops

miasma = any malarial type of disease

milk sickness = an often fatal disease caused by drinking the milk or eating the

        meat of a cow that had eaten certain poisonous plants

moiety = one half of land or goods; a share of two parts divided

mourning ring = a ring worn as a memorial to a deceased person

M.P. = Member of Parliament

nee = (pronounced "nay") a woman’s maiden surname, i.e.  "born"

Next Friend = A person authorized to represent someone who was disqualified to act on his or

her own behalf in a court of law.  \(Such as a minor, a married woman, or any mentally

incompetent person.)

n.i. = no issue

noncupative = a will made by the verbal declaration of the testator, and usually dependent

merely on oral testimony for proof.

OB = Order Book

of the whole blood = a term used in describing the children of a man’s first marriage,

especially his firstborn son

op.  cit.  = opere citato (the work cited above)

Ordinary = a tavern or inn; stableage was often provided for guests’ animals

patent = an official document conferring a right or privilege, such as land that is

given for headrights.  In precolonial days "a patent was conditional upon paying

a quitrent of twelvepence per fifty acres and seating the land.  A patent could

lapse if not seated and could escheat upon the death of the patentee intestate

and without ‘heirs of the body’.  A second person had to act to obtain the lapsed

or escheated land; therefore, the loss of the land was neither automatic nor

inevitable." (from A Place In Time, Middlesex County, VA 1650-1750 by Darrett

B. Rutman and Anita H. Rutman\)

perch = 5-1/2 yards

pole = 1 rod in linear measure, or 1 square rod in square measure

p./pp. = page/pages

Planter = a colonial or pioneer; the owner of a plantation; one who planted his own land or

    someone else’s; some planters were considered Gentlemen because of their social

standing, while others were not

primogeniture = the firstborn of the same parents; the exclusive right of the eldest son to inherit

    his father’s estate

prov. = proved, as in the proving of a will

prob. = probated

putrid fever = diptheria

quit-rents = a form of property tax paid annually, sometimes in tobacco or other products.

Quit-rents were paid only in the Northern Neck of Virginia.  In pre-Colonial

    days, a feudal system of land-ownership existed.  A patentee was expected

    to pay an annual rent or provide services to the Lord of the ManorOnce the

rent was paid, either in coin or service, the patentee was "quit" of his annual

responsibility.  A quit-rent did not have to paid until after a land patent had

    been issued.  So families often lived on a tract of land for years without

having to pay a quit-rent.

Regnal year = the date most often used in medieval documents, and refers to the number

of the year of the reign of the monarch at the time the document was dated

relict = widow

replevy/replevin = the common law action for the recovery of goods or chattels wrongfully

seized or detained

rod = 5-1/2 square yards or 16.5 feet (same as a pole)

rood = 40 square rods

Rot. (rotatus) = roll/rolls – a term used for many types of early records

seating = clearing, planting and tending an acre of corn, or building a house and running

cattle for a year on patented land

seisin/seizin = the right to possession of estates of freehold.  This possession was sometimes

delivered by a common law ceremony in which the seller handed the buyer a twig or

other item from the land.

seized = in possession of land (such as "he died seized of")

ship fever = typhus

sic = used after a word or passage to indicate that it is intended exactly as printed, or to

indicate that it exactly reproduces an original

span = 9 inches

square foot = 144 square inches

square mile = 40 acres

square yard = 9 square feet

tithables = the head of a family was taxed on the number of tithables in his ‘family’.

These included himself, all male white members of his family over 16 years of

age (or such other age as the law at the time dictated) and slaves, both male

and female, over that age

township = 36 square miles

vestryman = a member of a group of men who conducted the business of a parish.

They were elected for life.  At the death or resignation of a vestryman, a

replacement was elected by the remaining vestrymen.

Visitation = a form of census-taking; approximately every 30 years between 1530 and

1689, heralds traveled through the shires (counties) of England and Wales,

recording arms and pedigrees of the principal families.

viz = an abbreviation for "namely" (videlicet – Latin\) often found in old documents

WB = Will Book


Some of the above words and abbreviations were contributed by Jeanne Barton, Louise Birchfield, Myra Gormley, Ed Kutz, Felix Earle Luck, Susy Martin, and Sherry Nicol.