U.S. Supreme Court

Law Dictionaries Accept ‘Choate,’ Although Scalia Has Long Disagreed


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia voiced disapproval of the word choate as far back as December 1992.

The word appears in most major law dictionaries, the New York Times Magazine reports. Webster’s New World Law Dictionary says choate is the opposite of inchoate and means “completed or perfected in and of itself,” the story says.

But that didn’t stop Scalia from complaining during November oral arguments that “there is no such adjective” as choate.

“It’s like gruntled, ” Scalia said. Some people mistakenly assume the opposite of disgruntled is gruntled, he explained.

It wasn’t the first time Scalia chided a lawyer for using the word during oral arguments, according to the Times story. “You know that there is no such word as choate,” Scalia said in December 1992. “Choate is to inchoate as sult is to insult.” When Scalia wrote the majority opinion in the case, IRS v. McDermott, he quoted a 1954 Supreme Court precedent, but edited out the opinion’s use of the word. Instead, Scalia substituted “[no longer inchoate]” for choate.

Bryan Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, told the Times that Scalia takes issue with choate’s faulty etymological basis.

The in- in inchoate is not a negative prefix, Garner explains in his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. It comes from the Latin verb incohare, meaning “to begin, start out.” Taking away the in- from inchoate to form choate is back-formation and is part of a long tradition of removing prefixes and suffixes to find “roots” that were never there, the Times says.

Garner says choate is accepted and used “even by those who deprecate its origins.”

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