Citing Black’s Law Dictionary

Correct citation matters. So here it is. Once.

Forgive me, Elizabeth Shown Mills, for I have sinned.

In the summer of 2010, I was a student in the Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis course at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Courses at Samford are referred to by number; that class is Course 4. Because I couldn’t get into Course 4 without it, I had to write a paper for the course coordinator to approve. A paper, mind you, that had to have footnotes. Footnotes. In a paper that was going to be reviewed by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Yes, that Elizabeth Shown Mills. The author of Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian.1 The author of Evidence Explained : Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, now in its second edition.2 The editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly for 16 years.3

I was terrified.

Now in case you haven’t noticed, let me make it clear: I’m not exactly the shy and retiring type. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a defense attorney, a classroom educator for more than 20 years, even a federal prosecutor. I don’t scare easily. But the whole notion of having to write footnotes to be reviewed by Elizabeth Shown Mills intimidated me. Somehow I slid under the radar and into the class. The very first day — if memory serves me, the very first hour — of Course 4, we had to do an exercise on (you got it) footnotes. And my very first answer to the very first question was: “I haven’t got a clue.”

I was sure I was doomed.

By dint of long hours of work driven by abject terror, I managed to survive Course 4. I learned, among other things, that the last thing in the world Elizabeth Shown Mills would ever want to do is intimidate anyone who was genuinely trying to learn. If you someday have a chance to take Course 4, do it. Period. Do it. It’s a learning experience no serious genealogist should miss. But every time I write a citation, I’m still not entirely convinced that Elizabeth isn’t going have to shake her head sadly and, in her gentle Southern voice, tell me I still don’t have a clue.

So… the confession. I’ve probably cited versions of Henry Campbell Black’s law dictionary a dozen times or more so far, and I haven’t been writing this blog for two weeks yet. And, in those citations, I’ve cheated. You see, Black’s law dictionary — and particularly the first edition, the one I use most often because it was written closest in time to the records I work with — has a ridiculously long title. It’s so long that, some years after Black died, the publisher stopped using the long name and shortened it. And shortened it. And shortened it again. Today’s version is actually titled, simply, Black’s Law Dictionary.4

I’m going to continue to cite the 1891 edition of Black’s in this blog, and I’m going to continue to cite a short form of the title, simply to save space. But I’m too much a product of Elizabeth’s training not to confess that that’s what I’m doing. If you’re going to cite the first edition in your writing, particularly in formal writing, and — for pete’s sake — in anything you write for Course 4, here’s the proper citation for, say, the definition of the word “confession”:

Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law Containing Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, including the Principal Terms of International, Constitutional and Commercial Law; with a Collection of Legal Maxims and Numerous Select Titles from the Civil Law and Other Foreign Systems (St. Paul, Minn. : 1891), 248, “confession.”

By the way, when you use a version of a work that has subsequent revisions, you should explain why — and Evidence Explained uses Black’s Law Dictionary as an example of just such a case.5

Okay. End of confession. I feel better now. But — just in case I see Elizabeth any time soon — I’m going to go hide my “I survived Course 4” button.


  1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore : Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997).
  2. Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, rev. ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).
  3. Mills, “About the Author,” Historic Pathways ( : accessed 9 Jan 2012.)
  4. Bryan A. Garner, editor, Black’s Law Dictionary, rev. 9th ed. (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 2009).
  5. Mills, “Revised Editions,” § 12.82, Evidence Explained : Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 714.
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15 Responses to Citing Black’s Law Dictionary

  1. Celia Lewis says:

    I have the book… and it frequently overwhelms me. I still don’t seem to have a structure to hang the details on yet… and I’ve even done original research in the Humanities. So, Gold stars to you for winning the “I survived Course 4″ button – wear it proudly!! And, thanks for the smiles in the morning!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Celia, try to think of it this way: it’s just a dictionary. Yeah, okay, so it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica of dictionaries, not the World Book (if you’re old enough to remember that!). But it’s just a dictionary. And any time a term really stumps you… well… that’s what I’m here for!

  2. Chris Staats says:

    Confession #1: I have an irrational fear of citation, for which I am undergoing therapy. Improvement is noticeable (at least noticeable by me).
    Confession #2: After reading your post, I had to go back and fix my Black Law Dictionary citation (although it was pretty close)
    Confession #3: I need to fix a whole bunch of other ones.

    Love reading your blog – lots of good stuff!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Chris — but trust me on this one: you are NOT alone as to your irrational fear of citation. Criminy, what’s irrational about it??? But we shall muddle through, upward and onward.

  3. Love it, Judy! Great memories :) I’m glad to see you’ve finally “revealed” your witty blog!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Kimberly! Great memories, for sure — even with the terror, it was the single best educational experience — genealogical or otherwise — I’ve ever had!

  4. Judy wrote:
    >You see, Black’s law dictionary — and particularly the first edition, the one I use most often because it was written closest in time to the records I work with — has a ridiculously long title.

    Judy, if it’s a sin to shorten those overlong titles we find in old books, then I’ve also sinned at EE 12.59. :)

    Celia and Chris: the best way to deal with a fear of citations is a two-step process:

    Learn the basic principles. (In EE, that’s chapters 1 and 2, then the first few pages of each chapter for the special issues relating to that record type.)

    When you have a source in hand, stop and *think* about what you’re using. (What are its strengths and weaknesses? Does it have peculiarities that need to be noted?)

    EE is 880 pages because everyone wants an exact formula to follow for citing everything under the sun. But the best formula is 1 + 2 above.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      everyone wants an exact formula to follow for citing everything under the sun

      I will try, try, try to do 1 + 2. But I still want an exact formula…

  5. Judy: Great post! You have a real talent for being able to engage the reader and make legal genealogy insteresting. Looking forward to more from you!

  6. Great story. Good to see you in the blogosphere, Judy! This one is going on my home page so I don’t miss anything. Will you return to Samford this summer?

  7. Pingback: Best of the Genea-Blogs | My Blog

  8. Debra Hoffman says:


    Your blog is fantastic. You have a great sense of humor and are a wonderful creative writer all the while conveying educational, genealogical information. Your blog is a must read. Hope to see you at Samford again this year.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Debra, you are far too kind! Thanks! I will be at Samford again… as a matter of fact, that’ll be the subject of tomorrow’s blog!

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