In a comment justifying the closure of a question that asked for definition of terms used by auto manufacturers, a user said:

There is no role for the law in defining what words mean

Is this correct? Especially in a tightly regulated area such as automotive manufacturing and sale, I would find it surprising if terms such as hybrid vehicle, electric vehicle, or range-extended battery electric vehicle were not defined by regulators. (They in fact are defined by regulators.)

Are questions that ask whether terms have legislated or regulated definitions off topic? (And where a person asks on law.SE what a word means, I would think a generous interpretation is that they are asking what the word legally means in the context in which they described its use.)

Is it true that "there is no role for the law in defining what words mean"?

If that is true, we should get rid of the tag and create a custom close reason because these questions come up so frequently.

4 Answers 4



Most words, most of the time, have in laws, court decisions, and legal documents, their ordinary meaning, the same meaning they might have in a book or newspaper. A dictionary definition will be relevant (although often not conclusive) on what a word means in such a case.

However, it is often the case that am particular law defines a particular term for the purposes of that law. For example, US copyright law defines "derivative work", and the US ADA defines "disability". US federal and Maryland state law both define "debt collector" and the definitions differ significantly. "Employment" is defined differently in the law of agency, and in tax law (copyright law follows the law of agency here). Fire and building codes often define a host of technical terms. The same is true in laws of other nations.

It is and should be on-topic here to ask if statute law or case law has imposed a definition on a particular term in a particular area, and if so, what that definition is. If the answer is that there is no specific legal or regulatory definition, then the meaning must be sought in common or perhaps industry usage.


Are questions that ask whether terms have legislated or regulated definitions off topic?

No. They are on topic. Legislation usually includes definitions of key terms. To a lesser extent, so do contracts. This type of questions pertains to "Statutes" as well as "Legal terms and language", i.e., the first two items listed on What topics can I ask about here?.

The underlying post has been on topic since its initial version, and therefore there was no need to edit it. The question "What is the legal definition that separates these two classifications?" clearly is about "legal terms" regardless of whether the right answer is that there is no legislative distinction between two terms.

That post had been improperly closed, which misled the OP into thinking that he was mistaken by posting on LawSE.


My usual response to a question that asks what a word means without enough context for the word's usage to know how it is being used is to state that the law doesn't assign a single consistent definition to a word in all contexts, and that a question is not answerable without more detail.

  • In general I would agree with that. But the qustion that started this asked whether and how "hybrid" was defined by US laws regulating automobile sales and advertising. Does that seem like enough context? Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 1:14
  • @DavidSiegel And, of course, the answer I gave to that is that it isn't well defined or consistently defined. Another answer gave a specific answer for a definition. But it wasn't as bad as some of the questions asking for defined terms.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 1:16

In general, no

There are a limited number of words and phrases that have, through usage and custom, acquired specific legal meanings that may be distinct from their meaning in general usage. However, by and large, the meaning of words and phrases is for the community of language speakers in a particular time and place to decide.

When a court must interpret language, that will usually be their guiding principle. Depending on the specifics of the case, they may need to decide what the words mean here and now, or there and then, but they are always guided by the society of language speakers. Of course, the courts are part of this society so this is a two way street - which brings us back to paragraph 1.

When a court has to decide on the meaning of a contemporary or near contemporary document, this rarely presents a problem - the words mean what the words mean. When interpreting a historical document, like a Constitution, the court has to decide if the meaning has changed between then and now, and, if so, what meaning to use.

Bear in mind that the meaning of words only matter to the extent that they argue material to the case at hand. For example, consider the phrase “free-range eggs”. A marketer is entitled to use that phrase so long as it doesn’t violate the law. What law? Typically a law against misleading and deceptive conduct. What is is a “free-range egg”? It is an egg that a reasonable person would consider, in all the relevant circumstances, to be “free-range”. Does the law have a role in defining the term? No. Does it have a role in deciding if a particular egg is or in sort free range? Absolutely.

Bear in mind that we are on the type of knife edge between whether a common law court establishes a law or discovers a law that already existed. A court does not define words in exactly the same way a dictionary doesn’t - they simply report the definitions that already exist.

  • 2
    Actually, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a consumer protection or agricultural law specifically defined "free range" and prohibited its use on a label unless that definition was complied with. I believe that "organic" is so defined in US statute law. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 22:23

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