Bryan Garner on Words

Every lawyer a lexicographer: Defining words with clarity, brevity and practicality

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The definitions in Black’s Law Dictionary show an interesting evolution. In 1891, Henry Campbell Black’s entry read this way: “An inn; a public house or tavern; a house for entertaining strangers or travelers.” That’s about as good as the definition in the OED, even though we no longer equate hotels with pubs and taverns.

In 1910, Black kept that entry but expanded the discussion, saying “there is no difference whatever between the terms, hotel, inn, and tavern” unless a state-specific statute might say otherwise. He went on to say that a hotel is different from a boarding house, which keeps permanent boarders. And it is different from a lodging house because the furnishing of food is a requisite for a hotel. (That’s surely wrong to modern readers.) And it’s different from a restaurant or eating-house, neither of which must furnish lodging. (That’s surely right.)

The entry stayed the same in the 1933 third edition—the first edition prepared after Black’s death.

The fourth edition (1951) became a little extravagant: “a house which is held out to well-behaved members of the traveling public, who are willing to pay reasonable rates for accommodations, as a place where they will be received and entertained as guests for compensation, and will be furnished with food, drink, and lodging, and everything which they have occasion for while on their way.” Really? They will be furnished with “everything which they have occasion for while on their way”? In support of that definition, two cases are cited—one from Missouri and one from New York.

While drafting this column in a Miami hotel, I had the opportunity to test the definition. I asked the bellhop for the first through sixth editions of Black’s Law Dictionary. He sent me to the concierge, who politely demurred while acting as if I must be joking. When I suggested that the place must not be a hotel because they couldn’t supply my every need, the employees at the front desk waved me off with a frown.

OK, that didn’t happen, but it just might have if I’d been so silly.


The fifth (1979) and sixth (1990) editions of Black’s Law Dictionary were more practical. They eliminated the requirement of well-behaved guests, suggesting that transients must be received no matter how ill-behaved (surely wrong): “A ‘hotel’ is a building held out to the public as a place where all transient persons who come will be received and entertained [!] as guests for compensation and it opens its facilities to the public as a whole rather than limited accessibility to a well-defined private group.” A Utah opinion supports that definition. But must all hotel guests be “transient persons” (no local residents)? And must all transient persons be received and entertained?

In the sixth edition, the first three words were deleted (so the definition begins with A building), making the latter part of the definition (beginning with it) an ungrammatical shift. A small matter, you might think.

All this shows both the changeability of dictionary definitions and the tremendous challenge of writing good ones. Merely “borrowing” definitions from judicial opinions is a risky business at best.

Have you noticed something? All the definitions so far define hotel as if it’s a building or house—a physical structure. None defines it as a business. So how could you explain a sentence such as: “The hotel was found to be liable, not the guest”? Surely there are two meanings for the word. It can be a structure [I’m in the hotel] or a business [employees of the hotel].

Mind you, I’ve cut hotel from the four unabridged editions of Black’s Law Dictionary for which I’ve served as editor-in-chief. But if I were to include an entry, here’s how the definition would read (test your attempt against this): “1. A business that provides overnight lodging and usu. meals and other services for the public, esp. travelers. 2. The building in which such a business operates.”

Next month: lexicography in legal drafting.

Updated May 30 to correct a grammatical error.

Bryan A. Garner, the president of LawProse Inc., is a law professor, grammarian and lexicographer. His most recent book is Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia

Follow on Twitter @bryanagarner.

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