Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How many times have you cringed when someone started a presentation or speech with, "The dictionary defines x as ... "

Supreme Court's New Go-To Tool: the Dictionary - Justices citing definitions more and more in decisions:

via Newser

“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,' he adds. Yet the high court looked up 295 words and phrases in 225 opinions between 2000 and 2010, a study finds, compared to 23 words in 16 opinions in the 1960s. On top of that, justices have used more than 120 different dictionaries. “It’s easy to stack the deck by finding a definition that does or does not highlight a nuance that you’re interested in,” notes the OED editor.
I don't have a problem with justices researching the precise meaning of words. A large part of what they do is simply understanding the vast body of the law, some of which is archaic, ambiguous, and difficult. That's fine. My concern is exactly what's expressed in the quote above -- there needs to be an exacting standard for what definitions are used. Good grief, what if they use Wikipedia as much as I do?  Oh wait, they'd probably have to have clerk power on an internet device and type in the URL for them.

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