I looked up de, bene, and esse individually in several online Latin dictionaries. But none of de, bene or esse means, or relates to, any of the 3 meanings contended by Merriam-Webster boldfaced below! How can the same phrase mean all these 3 different things?

subject to future exception : CONDITIONAL, PROVISIONAL

Medieval Latin, literally, of well-being (i.e., morally acceptable, but subject to legal validation)

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    You could save readers the trouble of looking up how online Latin dictionaries define those three words by including their definitions in the question. (But +1, because I found it an interesting question.) Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 0:26

1 Answer 1


Well, if you look up the individual words, then the literal translation given by Merriam-Webster, “of well-being,” should be unsuprising; in fact, if anything, surprisingly straight-forward: de = of, bene = well, esse = being, what could be more obvious? (Those of us used to classical Latin will shake our heads, but never mind us.)

The question, and it is really a bit of an extra-Latin question, would then be: How did the phrase acquire its technical meaning as a legal term?

That is unclear. However, the best guess appears to be that it goes back to a special meaning of the word well, or French bien, as “having the proper/necessary form,” so being well means something like “being formally sufficient,” and of well-being is supposed to mean “of sufficient form” – and that in turn is then interpreted, as I understand it, as being valid on a preliminary basis, since proper form was observed, but no more has been established, and so the writ, or whatever, may still be invalidated on substantial grounds later – and from there, a more general idea of conditionality took hold.

Alexander M. Burrill's Law Dictionary and Glossary (vol. 1, 1871) devotes a rather lengthy essay on the mysterious etymology of the phrase, from which I quote a few excerpts:

The precise literal meaning of this very old, but still common technical expression, (the practical import of which is well enough understood,) seems to have been a matter of uncertainty and difficulty ever since the time of Cowell, who observes that “de bene esse are common Latin words, but their meaning something more dark.” […] From this circumstance, in connection with the apparent absence of words expressive of the idea of condition, now inseparable from its meaning, it has sometimes been supposed to be a fragment of a longer phrase or sentence, which supplied the words (now lost) necessary to complete the sense. […] The phrase itself, it may be observed, appears to have been not originally a Latin one, but a very literal translation of the law French del bien estre […] The context here plainly shows the meaning of del bien estre to be, of form,—literally, of well being,—which may be considered the original sense; bien, the emphatic word, (like the Latin bene,) being continually used by the same author to denote form, with the modifications of mere or indifferent form, (as in the passage quoted,) sufficient form, necessary form, and advisable form, according to its various applications. […] As to the peculiar structure of the phrase de bene esse in a grammatical point of view, it will be sufficient to observe that esse and its compounds are constantly employed in law Latin as substantives, in connection with prepositions, adjectives and other. parts of speech. In esse (in being) will occur as a very common example of this kind of construction, which, though uncouth and barbarous, seems to be necessary in order to express the intended idea with brevity, and at the same time with entire precision.

This happens not only in “law Latin,” but is actually a common feature of Mediaeval Latin, especially in the Mediaeval philosophers.

  • Anyone that has marked exams will immediately understand it. Most answers fall into two categories: this looks like garbage, so I'll look through it to see what I can give points for; and this looks impressive, so I'll look through it to see if there is anything I can deduct points for. "de bene esse" describes the latter category. Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 0:32

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