Theo Lippman Jr. began his column: 'What...


September 06, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"ON JULY 29 Theo Lippman Jr. began his column: 'What people think words mean is very important in the world of law.' "

So began a letter to the editor passed on to me. It is from William Case Rowe of Catonsville. He continued: "As your specialist on jural and legal matters, he seems limited by the problem that, like other laymen, he has no idea of even what the word 'law' means to lawyers."

He also wrote that I "have no clue . . . as to the lawyerly meaning of the word . . . 'right.' "

He also wrote that I misunderstand the meaning of the word "jurisprudence." And in conclusion he said: "Control of printing presses gives journalists much power to use words ignorantly and hence to confuse the makers of dictionaries who rely on repeated usage more than on expert usage. The utility of language is thus weakened constantly."

Duhhh, he's right, of course, that dictionary definitions change to reflect usage. But I wouldn't say language's utility is weakened by this, and it's not just us ignorant journalists who are responsible.

For example, Rowe writes that "jurisprudence" means "jurisprudential principles of interpretation" rather than what he says journalists mean: "the line of judicial decisions interpreting certain statutory or constitutional provisions."

I looked "jurisprudence" up in my Funk & Wagnall's (1935 edition). Its definition is like Rowe's. Then I looked it up in a 1983 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate: It had these two definitions: "the science or philosophy of law," which I would say is what Rowe meant; and "the course of court decisions," which is what I and many other journalists often use the word to mean.

A slightly longer version of that second definition appeared in Merriam-Webster's unabridged (1961) -- justified by a citation from Bernard Schwartz, who was not a newspaperman but a professor of law at New York University for 45 years.

Lawyers and especially judges may not like to see language usage and definitions change, but since change there is, they have no course of action but to accept it and keep up with it. When Congress writes what I call a law and Rowe calls a "statute," the language in it is sometimes as colloquial in its non-technical sections as the usage of everybody from college professors and journalists and advertising sloganeers to -- menu writers.

Yes, among the 14.5 million citation cards at Merriam-Webster's files in Springfield, Mass., are words as used on menus, packaged goods, technical journals, newspapers and in congressional debate and, I believe, on radio and television talk shows. (I may be wrong about that. Merriam-Webster may just use talk shows for its pronunciation guides.)

At any rate, faced with a constantly changing language, judges are increasingly dependent on dictionaries.

Thursday: The dictionaries of the Supreme Court.

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