Law and the use of dictionaries

I was intrigued by a debate ignited a few weeks ago over a US Supreme Court judge referencing a dictionary to define a word in his judgment on a case.The presence of a dictionary in the hallowed halls of the legal profession provoked a surprising amount of opposition from many legal academics and lawyers. It came across as the legal equivalent of blasphemy, but even more serious.

I was intrigued by a debate ignited a few weeks ago over a US Supreme Court judge referencing a dictionary to define a word in his judgment on a case.

The presence of a dictionary in the hallowed halls of the legal profession provoked a surprising amount of opposition from many legal academics and lawyers. It came across as the legal equivalent of blasphemy, but even more serious.

This kind of debate would probably make non-lawyers roll their eyes and also fuels the perception that the law might as well be in another universe altogether.

It certainly sounds like a silly argument on the surface but the answer is not a clear-cut one. Legal issues are rarely so.

On one hand, the use of dictionaries makes a certain kind of sense .Dictionaries are a definitive guide to language, so a judge can’t exactly cut himself off from the meaning of words as set out therein.

Can law cut itself off from the tenets of the language it is being expressed in? If you follow that to its logical conclusion, one could argue that an absurd state of affairs soon develops.

And because cases can hinge on the meaning of a seemingly simple word, it could be argued that judges (or lawyers arguing the case) would be adrift in a sea of uncertainty without the anchor of a dictionary.

You could argue that this is the practical way of doing things. Of course many laws have a definition section which sets out the legal meaning of words, but this can never be comprehensive and creates the somewhat comic situation where the words within the definition also become part of the definition problem.

But on the other hand, law is in its own world in certain ways. The dictionary definition of a word may be different from the legal definition and with good reason.

The legal conception of a word might be wider or more restricted than it is in the everyday sense captured by dictionaries.

And there is also the problem that judges will repeatedly rely on dictionaries to sort through the tangled thicket of legal principles instead of framing them primarily in a legal sense.

Dictionaries aren’t going to cover the full complexities in this context. And when matters of life and death may be at stake, you want to address the complexity as much as you can. An over-reliance on dictionaries might cause a certain ‘mental block’ in the person using them.

And it also creates a problem of what dictionary one would use for legal issues. And if the courts decide on this, how do they reconcile conflicts that these dictionaries may have with others over the definition of a word?

Furthermore, one could also argue that dictionaries aren’t especially quick to capture changing meanings of words in the first place. There’s often quite a time-lag between words changing meaning and their acceptance in the dictionary.

And in cases where entirely new words are created for modern usage, there is often an even bigger time lag before you see them added to dictionaries. It creates the interesting situation where the law will be a factor in shaping the meaning and acceptance of words.

minega@trustchambers.com

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