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Etymology of Great Legal Words: Contract

By George Khoury, Esq. on July 18, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Think about the word contract for a moment. Though what currently constitutes a valid contract may be undergoing changes thanks to the digital revolution, the term still retains a certain flexibility.

When you contract, or contract something, you could end up contracting with a doctor, who likely contracted with a lawyer to draft up a contract, or you could just end up buying or selling goods or services, or shrinking.

Regardless of what type of law you practice, you likely have some experience with contract law. And any way you draw it up, contract is an interesting word that is the basis for one of the largest areas of legal practice that touches nearly every other area. Below you can learn a little bit about the origin and history of the term.

Origin of Contract

The noun "contract" is believed to come from Latin roots, a combination of 'con-' meaning "with, together" and 'trahere' meaning "to draw." Makes sense, right? Before the legal connotation, it meant to bring people or things together. While this sense of the word came to be around the 1400s, and as a verb slightly later, the way we understand a contract as a legally binding agreement with terms and such didn't come to be until the early 1600s. The term "agreement" itself only slightly predates contract. And as an aside, the "contract for hire" sense of the term did appear until the 1940s.

Interestingly though, around 100 B.C. the "contractus litteris" (or literal contracts) in Roman Law existed and involved documenting and tracking financial transactions. More curiously though, the use of literal contracts died out well before our modern usage came to be.

In fact, modern contracts were actually something that people had to fight to get the right to enter into, which as noted, were "vestiges of feudal and mercantile restrictions." Sadly, there was a time when the freedom to contract did not exist.

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