Word of the Week in Law: Antecedent

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When translating between Spanish and English, we want to avoid using so-called “false friends” as much as possible. False friends are words that share a common root in Spanish and English (usually from Latin), but which have evolved to mean different things in each language. As linguists, one of our main challenges is knowing when to use and when to drop words with similar roots. Interestingly enough, legal English vocabulary is full of words that share a common Latin root with legal Spanish vocabulary. Thus requiring much attention to detail from linguists when working in this particular language pair.

One such word is “antecedent.” This may seem like a false friend of the Spanish term antecedentes or, more specifically, antecedentes penales, but it isn’t. In fact, the English word “antecedent” is often used to refer to the prior criminal record of a defendant in a criminal trial under the common law tradition. While our ears are more accustomed to the colloquial terms “prior offenses,” “prior convictions,” or just plain “priors,” the word “antecedents” continues to be used to this day in formal legal settings.

The common ancestor of these terms is the Latin ante, meaning “before” and cedere, meaning “go.” Antecedent made its way first into Old French and from there into late Middle English, as French was the language of the king of England and his court until the end of the 14th century.