June 19, 2011

“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom"

The New York Times recently reported that the use of dictionaries in Supreme Court decisions is "booming." Justices do not just cite definitions of law-related terms like "license," but also quite ordinary words like "now," "also," "delay," "if," and even "of" (which, most of the time, really only has the function to introduce a prepositional phrase after a noun, as in "the translation of the novel"). Lexicographers find this use of dictionaries in the courtroom strage:
“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom,” said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them.”
However, a study published in the Marquette Law Review, found that over the last decade almost 300 word or phrase definitions coming from more than 100 dictionaries were used. Alas, there is no official dictionary of the Supreme Court, judges seem to be happy to quote from any dictionary that supports their opinion. Sheidlower points out the obvious problem:
“It’s easy to stack the deck by finding a definition that does or does not highlight a nuance that you’re interested in,” said Mr. Sheidlower, the O.E.D. editor.
Well, if any decisions need to be written on gender reassignment or cyronauts in the near future, the judges are lucky: These words have just been included in the OED.

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