Clippings: Words at the heart of what we do
It’s been more than two months since I began reporting for the Addison Independent, and I’m now scraping the bottom of the “movies about newspapers” barrel.
Take “His Girl Friday” (1940), whose “journalists” reflect so badly on their profession someone thought it prudent to open the film with a disclaimer: “You will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press today,” it cautions. It takes place in “the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game.”
Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is trying to get out of that game, but her former editor (and ex-husband) Walter Burns (Cary Grant) lures her back for one more story.
Earl Williams (John Qualen) is “a poor little dope who lost his job and went berserk and shot a cop who was coming after him to quiet him down.” He’s scheduled to be executed the following day.
Walter wants Hildy to find a newsworthy angle on the man’s story. She visits Earl in jail and with some probing discovers that he spent a lot of time in the park after he lost his job. Did he hear “any of those speeches?” she wants to know. One, Earl recalls: a guy on a soapbox talking about “production for use.” Hildy has her angle, she thinks.
“Now look, Earl,” she says. “When you found yourself with that gun in your hand and that policeman coming at you, what did you think about?”
“I don’t know, exactly.”
“You must have thought of something. Could it have been … production for use?”
“I don’t know. I…”
“What’s a gun for, Earl?”
“A gun? Why, to shoot, of course.”
“Maybe that’s why you used it,” she concludes for him.
Little surprise, really, about that opening disclaimer.
What is a gun for, though?
It’s doubtful a consensus will ever form around any one answer to that question. “Which gun?” we could ask. And for that matter, What do we mean by “for”?
Judges and lawyers spend a lot of time arguing about this sort of thing, it turns out.
Last week, for instance, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the actions of a former Fair Haven Union High School student accused of plotting to shoot up the school do not meet the legal definition of “attempt.”
Where do these “definitions” come from? Regular old dictionaries, a lot of the time. According to the findings of a 1994 paper in the Harvard Law Review, the U.S. Supreme Court has consulted dictionaries in more than 600 cases, and in recent years justices have been using them more and more frequently. The author of the paper, legal scholar Kevin Werbach, thought this was something that warranted more scrutiny.
A decade later, while the Supreme Court was trying to define the word “marriage,” Dennis Baron, a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, did some scrutinizing:The justices weren’t just looking up “technical terms like ‘battery,’ ‘lien’ and ‘prima facie,’ words which any lawyer should know by heart,” Baron wrote. “They’re also checking ordinary words like ‘also,’ ‘if,’ ‘now,’ and even ‘ambiguous.’” Chief Justice John Roberts had recently looked up “of.” According to The New York Times he consulted five different dictionaries.
I love reading about this kind of stuff. It gives me a sense of nerdy solidarity with people.
But then Baron goes on to say that “sometimes the justices can’t find the support they’re looking for in dictionaries, and when a judicial interpretation of a law clashes with the lexical evidence, the justices are quick to reject the authority of the same dictionaries that in other cases they hold up as repositories of wisdom and reason.”
This “methodology” has affected landmark court decisions. District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), for instance, decided the meaning of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
In that case, Baron notes the following exchange between Justice David Souter and Solicitor General Paul Clement, who insisted that “bear arms” means “to carry guns outside the home”:
Souter: But wait a minute. You’re not saying that if somebody goes hunting deer he is bearing arms, or are you?
Clement: I would say that and so would Madison and so would Jefferson.
Souter: In the eighteenth century, someone going out to hunt a deer would have thought of themselves as bearing arms? I mean, is that the way they talk?
No, Clement conceded, it wasn’t. In its unmodified form the phrase was most naturally understood to have a military context, he said.
Justice Scalia shut down this line of argument, however:
“The fact that the phrase was commonly used in a particular context does not show that it is limited to that context.”
In further arguments, Justices Scalia and John Paul Stevens cited dictionaries printed in 1755, 1771 and 1794, but none of those produced the definition the court finally landed upon.
In a survey of dictionary definitions, Baron found that the phrase “bear arms,” which is a direct translation of the Latin arma ferre (arma meaning “implements of war”), began to diverge from its military roots in the second half of the 20th century, when groups like the National Rifle Association “began flooding the language with prose in which ‘bearing arms’ becomes a synonym for carrying guns.”
The point being that dictionaries change as the language does. Or, as Baron put it, “Words don’t make meanings, people do.” And so it is with our laws and their interpreters.
Where these laws (and our rights) are concerned, words are all we have, of course, and the authority to decide what they mean must come from somewhere. Even if I don’t always agree with our courts’ decisions — or methods — I’m heartened that their ongoing quest to define (and redefine) our legal language is undertaken with such precision and vigor.
A similar defining and redefining is happening in newsrooms around the country: What do we mean by “newsworthy”? How far in our rearview mirrors, really, are the “dark ages of the newspaper game”? I don’t pretend to know the answers to such questions after two months on the job, but I suspect I won’t learn them by cracking open any dictionary.
Instead, I think I’ll keep consulting my talented colleagues at the Addison Independent, whose guidance and encouragement I note here with gratitude.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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