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Law From An Etymological Perspective

Every word has a history that attempts to explain its meaning, and this meaning has been interpreted throughout time from antiquity to the present. Etymology attempts to examine the origin and meaning of words. This article will attempt to analyze the word "law"'s etymology, meaning, and various definitions that the Greeks and Romans attempted to give it.

The meaning given to the word "law" could be associated with righteousness or with what corresponds. This first idea can be associated with what the etymological dictionary specifies in relation to the word law. As we can find in the etymological dictionary, "law" and words related to it are connected to the term "what is right" and in different languages, "law" is also connected to "right". In French it translates to "droit", in Spanish "derecho", which came from Latin "directus". In Dutch "recht" and in German "recht". What is right refers to the expected actions of citizens aligned with common sense and good manners. Therefore, law appeared to create a series of rules to be followed to keep order in society while knowing that avoiding certain rules might generate a punishment.

A discussion of the Roman senate in the classical period
Figure 1: Roman senate in the classical period

Other studies also showed that it is kind of difficult to define the word “law” or “what is law?”. This might be generated because of the vast use given to the word. And because of all the branches that it has and the variety of laws that exist in different societies and idiosyncrasies. In general terms, a lawyer from a country cannot directly work in another country without a recon validation of the degree and this is because the laws and norms of the countries are different from each other and have their own particularities. That is because the word law is applicable to many places and the meaning might change from one place to another, we will analyze Roman Law as one of the great bases.

Roman law is the set of rules and laws that existed from the fifth century BC in Roman society. It is a set of rules that were characterized by imposing social duties and being a clear antecedent of what later became the division of powers and the Civil Law that we know today. Somehow, this is related to citizenship, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships between individual branches. Roman law dates to Ancient Rome and is based on law and the principle of legality. We have already seen the concept of law in previous paragraphs, Therefore, now we will define the concept of the principle of legality. This develops the idea that every action carried out by the public power must be in accordance with the law in force and its jurisdiction. What this principle tries to establish is that the acts of public power are not left to the free will of the people and must be in accordance with the law, so that the citizen is protected, and the rules of the game are clear.

An example of a justice balance where she is blind as a metaphor of impartiality
Figure 2: Justice balance

Exploring the historical roots of Law, we cannot overlook the influence of ancient Greece. While Roman Law is often regarded as the direct predecessor to modern legal systems, it was the ancient Greeks who laid the groundwork and left a lasting impact on the concept of law. The city-states of ancient Greece, known as polis, flourished with a remarkable level of autonomy, political freedom, and a distinct legal order. Unlike the unified Roman law, each Greek polis had its own unique approach to managing public order. The constitutional regime implemented in these city-states stands as Greece's most significant contribution to the development of Law. Its influence was subsequently carried forward by Roman Law. In a thought-provoking article titled 'El griego clásico y su incidencia en el léxico jurídico forense del siglo XXI' by Ludeña, G., Misari, D., De Piérola, V., & Ayala, W. (2020), the authors delve into the origins of present-day technical legal terms, revealing their roots in Roman Law, Latin, and Greek. Through an etymological analysis, they trace the evolution of vocabulary borrowed from Greek Law. This exploration leads us to the realization that the law we are familiar with today is the culmination of a rich historical process, with Rome serving as a crucial catalyst. Notably, many prominent Roman lawyers and jurisconsults, such as the renowned Cicero, were well-versed in the Greek language. This connection between Greece and the subsequent development of significant Roman texts is an undeniable testament to the enduring influence of ancient Greek Law

A picture of Atenas with some examples of the Greek ruins in the bottom
Figure 3: Atenas, Greece

In this article, we analysed the etymology of the term "law" (rephrase: delved into the origins of the word "law") to shed light on its historical roots in Rome and Ancient Greece. These two distinct time periods and geographical locations are intricately linked, forming a continuum that ultimately led to the evolution of our modern concept of law (Unclear, rephrase). The initial reference to "what is right" in the introduction of this article holds profound significance, as it encapsulates the very essence of the boundaries and regulations that law seeks to establish within society. Both Greece, with its polis-based internal regulations, and Rome, with its more cohesive approach, made valiant attempts to cultivate this notion of "what is right." Within the pages of this article, the author cites a thought-provoking statement from On the Origin and Nature of Law, which highlights the inherent challenge in defining law. However, through our comprehensive examination of its multifaceted origins, this article has successfully illuminated the intricate tapestry that comprises the concept of law. It is evident that regardless of its diverse origins, the fundamental purpose of law remains steadfast: to uphold the supremacy of "what is right" above all else. This noble intention has persevered since its inception, transcending time and guiding us to the present day.

Bibliography references

Alonso y Royano, F (1996). El Derecho griego.

Buis, E (2017) Derecho griego antiguo

Cartwright, M (2013). Derecho Romano

Etecé, Equipo Editorial (2016). Derecho Romano

Ludeña, G., Misari, D., De Piérola, V., & Ayala, W. (2020). El griego clásico y su incidencia en el léxico jurídico forense del siglo XXI. Revista de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Políticas, 50 (133), pp. 356-372

Simonton, J.W (1902) On the Origin and Nature of Law

Visual sources


Exploring the term "Law" from an etymological perspective unveils its roots and sheds light on its evolution. At The Law Office of Paul Mankin, our commitment to understanding the intricacies of legal concepts aligns with this exploration. From advocating for clients' needs to navigating disputes and settling lawsuits, our professionals comprehend the depth of the law's historical foundation. We believe that a comprehensive understanding of legal language, its origins, and its contemporary applications is fundamental to providing the highest caliber of care for our clients. In our pursuit of justice, this etymological perspective becomes a valuable tool, enhancing our ability to navigate the complexities of the legal landscape on behalf of each individual we represent.


The painting is of Cicero denouncing Catiline in the senate.

Author Photo

Baldomero Villamil

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