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U.S. Supreme Court

Some Lexicographers Question Justices’ Increasing Reliance on Dictionaries

Posted Jun 14, 2011 7:24 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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U.S. Supreme Court justices are increasingly relying on dictionaries to define words in legislation, perplexing some lexicographers.

Justices have consulted 120 different dictionaries to define words ranging from “of” and “if” to “attorney” and “common law,” the New York Times reports.

Justices have been looking to dictionaries more often in the last couple decades, according to a study in the Marquette Law Review says. Since October 2000, justices used dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions. In the 1960s, on the other hand, justices used dictionaries to define just 23 terms in 16 opinions.

Some lexicographers think the trend is “sort of strange,” according to the newspaper. Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of them.

“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom,” he told the Times. “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.”

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