Academic Latin Pronunciation: Bone-a Fee-deys
Legal Latin Pronunciation: Bone-a Fi-d
The New College Latin and English Dictionary says….
* Bon-us, -a, -um; adi good (morality); sound, valid, well-founded (arguments)
* Fid-es, -ei; f Trust, reliance, confidence; trustworthiness, conscientiousness, honest; assurance; word, word of honor; protection, guarantee; false conduct; confirmation, proof (in this case: ablative case)
* Bona fidei: In good faith
* Bona fides (or ex bona fides): In good faith; really, genuinely
Bona Fides: “In” (ablative) “sound / valid” “trust / word of honor / guarantee”
Used in Latin… the term has many categories. The New College Dictionary has a plethora of phrases with “fidem” and a complimentary verb that mean arguably the same thing, in many situations. However, just like any language that has many, many translations for one simple word, the significance of the world changes with the nuance. With “bona”, the term is related to “good” in a moral or trustworthy sense.
For legal latin… “bona fides” it refers to legal instruments or promises that have been made “without fraud or deceit” (Black’s Law Dictionary). In this way, the legal community is defining something in the inverse; a “bona fide” document is not “an agreement made in good faith”, but “an agreement that was not made through fraudulent actions or deception”. It may seem like splitting hairs, but for a linguist, there is meaning to the definition.
Alternatively, Black’s Law Dictionary defines the english term “good faith” (used as a noun) as: “A state of mind consisting in (1) honesty in belief or purpose, (2) faithfulness to one’s duty or obligation, (3) observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing in a given trade or business, or (4) absence of intent to defraud or to seek unconscionable advantage.” So the definition is given depth and meaning based on the circumstance. (Very much like the latin usage!) This opens the door to relevant “Good Faith” doctrines, including such examples as “Good Faith Bargaining” for Labor Law, “Good Faith Exception” for Criminal Law, “Good Faith Improver” for property law, and even “Good Faith Effort” for government compliance with equal opportunity employment acts.
So what does this all mean?
For most people, “bonafide” is a term that we use in common discourse to mean something is “the real thing” as opposed to a fake. In the latin, it remains a vastly open ended notation of intent by the actor or the trustworthiness of a thing. With modern legal practice, the term of art we know as “bona fides” is many things, depending on the situation: a standard for review, a provable mental state for litigation, a defense to negligence, or an indicator for intent – largely based on an intangible sense of “good”, honesty, and morality. It has taken an intangible notion similar to a “faith in the goodness of humanity” and created a legal doctrine whereby it can be used to describe the trustworthiness of a document or person’s statement or actions.
As a side note, it also seems to be something that would have been key for a community of people who distrusted written contracts as opposed to oral ones. In an oral culture, you shook on an agreement and felt you could trust a person to carry out their end of the bargain. When those terms got put to paper, the humanity was arguably taken out of the equation; “either you perform as we have in the written negotiation, or I’ll sue you for damages and reparation”. Having a “Good Faith” doctrine, then, seems to be our greatest attempt at bringing back in, or at least formally acknowledging, the trust that is implicit in modern legal practice.
Because to be honest, very few people are able to blindly trust another person, especially someone with dissimilar interests. Doing business through lawyers doesn’t help, either. A lawyer is there to tell you your rights and to advocate for your position, some times to the de-valuation of your opponents. However, when there remains a factor of trust and honesty in the process, at least you know you aren’t getting screwed. Well, at least not intentionally.
And I suppose that’s all that really matters.
Vestra Magistra, Esq.