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Go hence without day

Q From Bob Nelson, Tobyhanna, PA, USA: The last sentence of a ruling by Judge N. Sanders Sauls in Yet Another Election Trial in Florida contains the phrase go hence without day. At first, I thought it was merely a typo and should have read go hence without delay, but a search on the Web turned up 31 instances of that exact phrase, all from legal documents or minutes of legal proceedings. Where did this phrase come from, and what does it mean?

A Go hence without day — henceforth you will only be allowed nights. It sounds weird and I’m not surprised you were brought up short by it. I hadn’t come across this before and the Oxford English Dictionary marks it as obsolete. It’s an Anglicisation of the Latin phrase sine die, which looks as though it might mean without day, but actually means without a day. It means that a date has not been set for resuming a hearing or calling another meeting, and it can refer either to an indefinite postponement or a permanent abandonment of proceedings. If a meeting is adjourned sine die or without day it can mean either that a date for resumption will be set later, or that you shouldn’t live in hope of another one, ever.

Not being too familiar with American legal practice (though recent events have done a lot to change that) I checked with James E Clapp, author of the Random House Webster’s Dictionary of the Law. He confirmed this was the explanation and also told me that both sine die and without day are used in American legislative and judicial practice. He added: “When the regular annual or biennial session of a legislature comes to an end, it adjourns without day, meaning that in the normal course of events that’s the end of it. But if an emergency arises, the legislators might be called back into special session. On the other hand, when a case is dismissed and the defendant is told that he may go hence without day, it really means that the defendant is permanently freed — except for the possibility of a reversal on appeal”.

What has happened is that an incorrect English translation of the Latin tag has become an idiom, meaningless in itself, but well understood by all legal practitioners in the United States (as the OED says, it is obsolete in the UK).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Jan. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 January 2001.