U.S. Supreme Court

Scalia's vocabulary is more complex than those of Shakespeare and Jay-Z, study finds


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File photo of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia courtesy of ABA Media Services.

Justice Antonin Scalia has the most complex vocabulary of any current justice, and even bests Shakespeare, according to a computer analysis of word repetition.

But Scalia’s vocabulary can’t compete with that of rapper Aesop Rock.

University of Chicago law professors Adam Chilton and Eric Posner conducted the study along with research assistant Kevin Jiang. Inspired by a data scientist’s analysis of rap lyrics, the trio analyzed the texts of current and historically famous justices for complexity. They also tossed in the lyrics of three rap artists and the writings of Shakespeare. Their findings are summarized in an article for Slate.

The study used a computer program to count the number of unique words in a text of a given size. Writers who use more unique words have a larger vocabulary and write with more complexity.

Former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had the highest score; he used 211 unique words in a 1,000-word text. Closely following him was Aesop Rock. Next came Scalia, followed by former Justice Robert Jackson and Shakespeare, who were all close together on the scale.

Jay-Z was in the middle of the pack, while DMX was second from the bottom. Only former Chief Justice John Marshall did worse, using only 87 unique words in a 1,000-word text. Third from the bottom was Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Despite Marshall’s poor showing, the study authors view him as the greatest justice of all time. Kennedy, on the other hand, “is our idea of a bad writer,” they write.

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