Black’s Law Dictionary was the brainchild of the American legal scholar Henry Campbell Black. The first edition of the work appeared in 1891, with a preface written by Black. With no attempt at modesty, Black described his work in the following way.
The dictionary now offered to the profession is the result of the author’s endeavor to prepare a concise and yet comprehensive book of definitions of the terms, phrases, and maxims used in American and English law and necessary to be understood by the working lawyer and judge, as well as those important to the student of legal history or comparative jurisprudence…Of the most esteemed law dictionaries now in use, each will be found to contain a very considerable number of words not defined in any other. None is quite comprehensive in itself. The author has made it his aim to include all these terms and phrases here, together with some not elsewhere defined.Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law iii (1891).
The dictionary has indeed lived up to the bold claims made in Black’s original preface and a copy of the work can be found in almost every law office, law library, and judge’s chambers throughout the U.S.
Since the mid-1990s, the dictionary has been edited and revised by Bryan A. Garner, a lexicographer and research professor at Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas, Texas.
In Garner’s words, the purpose of the dictionary is the same today as it was in Black’s day. That purpose is
to marshal legal terms to the fullest possible extent and to define them accurately.Black’s Law Dictionary, 11th Edition, xiii
Garner seeks to provide,
Material that will be valuable to a wide range of dictionary users, from students to practicing lawyers to historians.Id.
Black’s Law Dictionary is commonly classed as a secondary resource, and that would be correct if it were merely a compilation of judicial statements—as it once verged on being. I have always thought that a dictionary, properly written, should be considered a primary resource—that is, a primary lexicographic resource. The Oxford English Dictionary has achieved that distinction and, as the most widely cited lawbook in the English-speaking world, Black’s Law Dictionary can certainly lay claim to it.Id. xvi