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November 18, 2001 - Supreme Court Dictionary Use - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- using a dictionary to help define the law of the land.

RS: The next time you go to an English dictionary to look up a word or settle an argument, you might take comfort in knowing that even some of the most esteemed users of the language are doing the same thing.

AA: Two researchers have found an increasing tendency by U-S Supreme Court justices some more than others - to cite dictionaries in their opinions. And not just legal dictionaries but general-use dictionaries as well.

RS: Jeff Kirchmeier [kirk-meyer] is a law professor at the City University of New York. Using a computer, he and Sam Thumma [thum-a], a lawyer in Arizona, searched for the word "dictionary" in Supreme Court decisions.


"Whereas the court first used the dictionary back in 1830, very rarely did they use it. For a long time, even up through like 1910 through 1919 they only used the dictionary in eight opinions. In the 1920s they only used it in 10 opinions. And really up through the '60s they never even used it in more than 20 opinions a year -- I'm talking about over a whole term of the court year."

AA: In the nineteen-nineties, Professor Kirchmeier says, the Supreme Court cited dictionaries in more than two hundred opinions. The words defined ranged from the seemingly straightforward, like "coal," to terms like "corruption" and "usufructuary," which has to do with the right to enjoy the fruits of something belonging to someone else.

One possible reason for the increasing reliance, he says, is that dictionaries have changed over the years.


KIRCHMEIER: "Up through the 1960s, dictionaries generally were used to be prescriptive, meaning that dictionaries would say what words should mean or how we should see them to mean. And the Webster's Third New International Dictionary sort of changed that. They came out with what's called a descriptive dictionary, instead describing the way words actually are being used in conversations and writings. Once dictionaries started focusing on what words actually meant in general use, that may have also partly affected the court's use of it, although initially there was some debate about whether dictionaries that were descriptive dictionaries were really dictionaries."

RS: "Can you give us an example of how the dictionary has determined the outcome of a case."

KIRCHMEIER: "There's a couple of cases where the court used it in the same way, and there the court was trying to interpret a statute using the word 'cattle.' The statute there had been written many years before, like a century earlier, so the court looked at dictionaries from that time period to determine what 'cattle' meant to determine whether it included in those cases hogs and sheep. And they determined by looking at those dictionaries that the definition of 'cattle' did include those in those cases."

AA: "Really! When I hear 'cattle' I just think of cows."

KIRCHMEIER: "Yeah, me too!"

RS: Even words as simple as "no" have prompted the Supreme Court to turn to the dictionary.


KIRCHMEIER: "'No' involved a case where the court was looking at whether someone could be convicted of making a false statement to investigators, and someone had answered a question by saying 'no,' and so the court looked at dictionaries to determine whether the word 'no' constituted a statement."

AA: "And what did they decide?"

KIRCHMEIER: "They decided that it was a statement."

AA: "So, 'no,' period. (laughing)"

KIRCHMEIER: "Yeah, yeah."

AA: He says that, a lot of times, if the statutes written by Congress were a little clearer, then the court might not have to go to the dictionary as often. Not long ago there was a case involving a law that imposed a more severe sentence if a person were found to be "carrying" a weapon.

RS: Does having a gun in the trunk of a car mean "carrying"? Or does the law literally mean holding a weapon in your hand?


KIRCHMEIER: "They did decide that 'carrying' would include it being in the trunk. But I think there was a dissenting opinion in that case."

RS: "So it's a struggle on one hand to be clear and on the other hand to be precise but understandable."

KIRCHMEIER: "Exactly."

AA: Professor Kirchmeier points to comments made by some of the nine members of the court, including Justice Stephen Beyer, expressing concerns about the use of dictionaries.


KIRCHMEIER: "There's a very recent case where Justice Breyer had stated, and I'll read it: 'Language, dictionaries and canons, unilluminated by purpose, can lead courts into blind alleys, producing rigid interpretations that can harm those whom the statute affects."

AA: Professor Jeff Kirchmeyer at the City University of New York School of Law, co-author of an article on this topic in the autumn issue of "The Green Bag, An Entertaining Journal of Law" -- that's what it calls itself.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our address is, or VOA Wordmaster Washington DC 20237 USA. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.