What does "Ejusdem Generis" Mean?

Pablo Garcia
Pablo Garcia
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Ejusdem generis is a Latin phrase meaning “of the same kind.” As a legal term it refers to a principle for interpreting the language of a statute. The rule of ejusdem generis says that when a generic description follows specific items, the more generic description is read to apply only to things belonging to the same group or class as the specific items. For instance, applying ejusdem generis to a law about “gin, bourbon, vodka, rum and other beverages,” would exclude “milk” from the general term “other beverages.” This is true even though milk is a beverage.

The rule of ejusdem generis is a tool for U.S. and other countries' common law courts to use in determining the meaning to be given to language that lists specific items within a statute. Such rules of construction help to ensure that courts interpret statutes consistent with the intent of the legislative body that enacted the statute. Ejusdem generis is, thus, generally used with caution. This is because its use is governed by a fundamental rule that statutory language must be read so as to carry out the intent of the legislature. When the language of a statute may not be clear in its scope, ejusdem generis in effect presumes what the legislature intended by a general word from its use of more specific words.

Before the rule can be applied, certain conditions must exist. The statute must contain a list of items that suggest the items belong to a type or class of things. The list cannot exhaust all the possible items of the class or type. A general term describing the class or type must follow the list of specific items. There should be no clear evidence of legislative intent that the general term be given a broader meaning than would apply to the specific items.

If the listed words in a statute do not make up a distinct group or class of things, the rule of ejusdem generis does not apply. Likewise, the rule does not apply to a single term that does not itself constitute a class. Also, if the specific items listed include all of the possible items in a class, any general descriptor following the list is read as applying to a larger class of items.

Interesting instances of applying ejusdem generis consistent with legislative intent can arise with advances in technology. Historical examples include deciding whether an automobile was a “carriage” for purposes of negligence rules, or if the newly invented bicycle was a “machine.” As advances in modern technology continue, fitting new technologies into a class may become more difficult. A thing could be so new and different as to be sui generis, “of its own kind.”

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Discussion Comments


I suppose the current debate over the Second Amendment would also contain an element of ejusdem generis. The amendment only says that the people have a right to bear "arms". In 1789, "arms" meant long rifles, pistols and shotguns. A modern court would have to decide if other weapons also fall under the same definition. "Arms" could conceivably include bazookas, machine guns, flame throwers and rocket-propelled grenades. A court could decide that some weapons could NOT be defined as legal arms, as well.

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