Thursday, July 14, 2016


It's a phrase that means a mess from which there is no way of extricating oneself. It relates  to the lake of Serbonis in Egypt, which by reason of the sand blowing into it had a deceptive appearance of being solid land, but was a bog. It is believed that in the past, whole armies had been lost in the lake.

In law, it is an expression used quite often. According to "Surveying the Serbonian Bog: A Brief History of a Judicial Metaphor Summer, 2004,  28 Tul. Mar. L. J. 519 ny Parker B. Potter, Jr.:

"...the phrase "Serbonian bog" has appeared in no fewer than 222 state and federal cases since 1847.  The phrase has also been put to use by the authors of numerous law review articles......

As for the origins of the allusion, it has been written that "the first court use of Serbonian Bog was attributed to Justice Cardozo"  who wrote that "the attempted distinction between accidental results and accidental means will plunge this branch of the law into a Serbonian Bog."  While Justice Cardozo did not say where he had found the inspiration to refer to the Serbonian bog,  my Westlaw search quickly revealed what Cardozo had not disclosed - the reference comes from .....John Milton's Paradise Lost"

"A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog...
Where armies whole have sunk.
John Milton, Paradise Lost (Book II, lines 592–594)."

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