Multiple Meanings of “attachment”

Legal Terms with Multiple Meanings
One of the major difficulties of learning legal language is that so many terms have one meaning in everyday usage, but may mean something radically different in legal contexts. And sometimes the same word may have several different legal meanings, depending on the practice area in which it is used. Linguists may describe such terms as “polysemous,” and they are certainly present in abundance in both legal Spanish and legal English. Under “Multiple Meanings” I offer a sampling of expressions that I believe are likely to give rise to miscues in legal translation. Logically, the focus is on usage in legal contexts, and their nonlegal meanings have generally been excluded.


“Attachment” is used in legal contexts with at least three distinct meanings. In the law of contracts, it most often denotes a document that is affixed to (and considered a part of) a contract (un adjunto; el documento adjunto). In this sense, in addition to “attachment,” a document affixed or appended to a contract may also be called a “schedule,” “appendix” “exhibit,” or sometimes an “annex.”

In contrast, in civil procedure, “attachment” has a radically different meaning, often referring to the judicial seizure of a defendant’s property or wages to secure a judgment, being one of the provisional remedies (medidas cautelares) that a plaintiff may seek against a defendant. Common expressions used in this context include “pretrial attachment” (embargo preventivo), “attachment of property (or) assets” (embargo de bienes) and “attachment of wages (or) earnings” (embargo de salarios).

And “attachment” is likewise used in a third, lesser known sense in which “attach” denotes “becoming attributed to or operative.” Thus, an expression such as “attachment of liability” refers to the moment in which civil liability arises or is incurred. This meaning of “attachment” is expressed in Spanish legal documents as nacimiento: “attachment of liability” (nacimiento de la responsabilidad civil). The verb “attach” is used similarly, being synonymous with “arises” or “is incurred”: “tax liability attaches upon receipt of income” (la obligación tributaria nace al percibir los ingresos).

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