This comes from an English Language Lerner's Stack Exchange question, the current answers to which are lacking in historical/legal analysis of the term.

What is the origin of the legal phrase "grand theft auto"? In particular, is there any legal or historical rationale for the ordering of the terms? (E.g. why isn't it "grand theft of auto" or "auto grand theft" or even "grand auto theft".)

There are some claims that it's simply an elision of a comma ("grand theft, auto") implying that it's a simplification of something like an entry in an (alphabetized) list of crimes. Others have indicated that there might be some Law French or Latin influence in putting the descriptor last (along the lines of "courts martial"). Are either of these accurate with the historical origin of the term, or is there some other reason?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a question about English slang, not the law or legal process or legal terminology.
    – user4657
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 4:46
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    Related on English Language & Usage: Why is it “grand theft auto”?
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 6:27
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    "Grand theft auto" is not just slang it is specific legal terminology, and so a Q about its meaning and origin is on-topic for law.se, i think Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 15:48
  • It was certainly my intent when creating this question that it would focus on the legal terminology aspects of the phrase (if any), and not popular culture/slang usage. That is, that answers might go into the historical precedent of the naming of laws, the role of Anglo-Norman in legal terminology, and the minutiae of proper comma placement.
    – R.M.
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 16:13
  • The answer provided three years ago indicates that it is a slang term, and that there is no apparent jurisdiction in which the term has legal meaning beyond the slang definition. As a question about etymology of a phrase that happens to have use in a legal context, it is a question about the English language, not the law or legal process, or history thereof.
    – user4657
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 10:10

1 Answer 1


"Grand theft, auto" is specific crime in some jurisdictions. It's not a universal legal phrase. Furthermore, it is a slang expression like "Murder One." I doubt any jurisdiction has a crime of "Grand theft, auto." It might be "Grand theft, automobile."

"Theft" or "larceny" is a common law crime. "Grand theft" (or "Grand Larceny") is statutory crime that usually imposes a higher penalty for the theft of a higher value item(s). Not all jurisdictions even have "grand theft."

The taking of an automobile may be defined as a simple larceny or it may be defined as a separate crime of auto theft. In New Jersey (a model penal code state), automobile theft is just theft with different penalties or the separate crime of joyriding.

Penal codes are normally arranged with in taxonomy structure. Typically it would like something like:

  • Property Crimes
    • Theft
      • Grand Theft
        • auto going from general to specific.

In New York, there are "Theft crimes" (with robbery and larceny being types of theft).The taking of an automobile is just a larceny. However, over $1,000 in value makes it a grand larceny.

The bottom line is "Grand theft, auto" is a slang term that refers to the statutory crime of grand theft where there are specific provisions for the theft of an automobile.

  • 2
    This answer presupposes that "grand theft, auto" (with the comma) is the true/correct version of the term. As this is one of the main issues underlying the question, it would be nice if it was treated explicitly. (e.g. do you have a reference that "grand theft, auto" is the proper way of writing it?) Also, even if not an official legal term, the phrase is used colloquially, and some discussion of the historical origin of the term would be appreciated.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 21:47
  • As I described, "Grand Theft, Auto" is a slang term. Thus, you can write it any way you want. Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 15:37
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    ... and "buck" is a slang term for a US dollar. But I don't think anyone would claim that "you can write it any way you want" (e.g. "bouqe"). There's common usage and historical origin which informs common usage, even of slang terms.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 16:01
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    @R.M. you are trying to argue linguistic constructs on a website devoted to legal discussion. You aren't going to get an answer you like. The best you can hope for is historical context.
    – JBCP
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 23:05
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    in NJ, the "true/correct version of the term is "Theft by unlawful taking or disposition." In NY, it is "Grand larceny." In the District of Columbia, it is "Theft." In NC is it "Larceny." In CA it is "Grand Theft.:" The taking of an automobile is automatically Grand Theft. As is the taking of a firearm. Some Calif opinions refer to "Grand Theft Firearm,: "Grand Theft Automobile" or "Grand Theft Auto." Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 2:56

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