“Fiscal” does not mean “fiscaal”

One of the English legal words that Dutch professionals tend to overuse and misuse is “fiscal”. Fiscaal is not the same as “fiscal”.

“Fiscal” is a “false friend”

The Dutch word fiscaal often refers to “tax”. The English equivalent “fiscal” tends to be incorrectly used as the English equivalent. However, English speakers do not use the word “fiscal” in the same sense of “tax”. This is an example of second-language interference. “Fiscal” used in the sense of “tax” looks right to a Dutch legal professional because it is similar to the familiar Dutch word fiscaal.

How “fiscal” is used in English

“Fiscal” is broader than fiscaal. It refers to financial matters in general, especially those relating to the government. When English speakers use the word “fiscal”, they may not be referring to tax at all. They usually are not.

The adjective “fiscal” is usually used in the context of government finance. According to Oxford, “fiscal” means “relating to government revenue, especially taxes”. Oxford also points out that in North America, “fiscal” can be a broader term meaning “relating to financial matters”. According to Merriam-Webster, an American dictionary, “fiscal” is an adjective with two meanings:

  • of or relating to taxation, public revenues, or public debt;
  • of or relating to financial matters.

In North America, “fiscal year” (sometimes shortened to just “fiscal”) can also denote a financial year, e.g. “the budget deficit for fiscal 1996” (Oxford).

This is not necessarily a minor issue. A simple and common phrase like “fiscal consequences” in legal correspondence could be completely misunderstood by an English-speaking reader. It should be “tax consequences”. This also raises further questions about the quality of legal English in the Netherlands. The collective use of an incorrect term has consequences!

By the way, fiscus is not used at all in English.

Recommendation

Use “tax” to refer to tax matters, not “fiscal”.

  • Fiscaal recht is “tax law” in English, not “fiscal law”.
  • A tax adviser or tax lawyer does not advise on “fiscal matters“, but on “tax matters”.
  • There is no such phrase in English as “fiscal investigation”. The phrase is “tax investigation”.
  • A fiscale eenheid is not a “fiscal unity”, even though this phrase is commonly used in the Netherlands. It’s a group treated as a single unit for tax purposes. A “tax unit”, perhaps.

Greg Korbee (December 2014)

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