Language & Dictionaries
"How's the dictionary getting on?" Winston asked his comrade Syme, who worked with him in the Research Department.
"We're getting the language into its final shape," Syme answered. "By the year 2050 at the very latest not a single human being will be alive who could understand the conversation we are having now."
1984, George Orwell.
In America we speak three languages: Slang, Formal English, and Legal English, Though simular, if one tries to communicate using one language while the listener is listening using another language, there is great opportunity for miscommunication. This article is written in Legal English.
It's the language of the street. It is a dynamic, loosely defined language, and it can vary considerably from one geographical area to the next. It abounds with special and paradoxical interpretations. Once must "grow up" with the language to fully appreciate its peculiarities.
Foreigners always have great difficulty dealing with the various idioms. For example, if you think something is genuinely wonderful, you could say either, "That's really cool!" or "That's really hot!" Another way to express great approval is to exclaim, "That's B-A-D!" or "That's G-O-O-D!"
Precise communications require a more formal structure. Formal English is taught in the schools, and it is the language of choice when strangers meet to execute common transactions. It is a stable language that typically requires multi-decades or centuries to evolve its meanings.
Unless otherwise specified, English dictionaries cast all words in Formal English, with the more common usage placed at the beginning of the definition. Dictionaries often will show slang or legal meanings as well. They are placed after the more popular usages.
This author favors Webster's 1828 Dictionary (which is also online [but as of this writing, temporarily offline]) because it is useful in understanding words used in the U.S. Constitution. G. & C. Merriam Webster's unabridged dictionary published in 1953 and earlier is great for modern meanings.
When you want accuracy in communication, Legal English is the preferred language. Also known as King's English, or the Language of the Court Room, Legal English is extremely stable, requiring thousands of years for changes in meaning.
Because accuracy is required for good legal communication, legal definitions tend to be rather verbose. The extended explanations are necessary to achieve that accuracy. Legal dictionaries are not all called dictionaries. The more thorough dictionaries are entitled "Corpus Juris" and "Words and Phrases." A given word could require fifty or more pages to arrive at its exact meaning. Other dictionaries (in descending order of this author's preference) include Bouvier's Law Dictionary (1872 Edition), Ballentine's Law Dictionary, and Black's Law Dictionary (4th edition or earlier).
Later editions of Bouvier's Law Dictionary are more like legal encyclopedias
Black's Law Dictionary, 5th through 7th Editions are not as accurate because references to common law are progressively removed, and Roman Civil Law concepts are augmented in order to conform to the law enforcement needs of political power centers such as the Federal Government and the United Nations.
The rule of thumb is that older dictionaries are useful for understanding natural rights, common law, personal sovereignty, and the people's point of view. Newer dictionaries are useful for understanding civil rights, Roman civil law, centralized authority, and the government's point of view. All attorneys are trained in the latter. Judges may go to special seminars to learn the former.
For an excellent research paper on the use of dictionaries in the Supreme Court of the United States, see Kevin Werbach's LOOKING IT UP: The Supreme Court's Use of Dictionaries in Statutory and Constitutional Interpretation (1994).
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