[DSNA] RE: Query re the non-divinity of lexicographers

Sidney Landau slandau1755 at WORLDNET.ATT.NET
Mon May 21 13:56:39 UTC 2001

In 1997 a law professor by the name of Ellen Aprill wrote to me for
assistance in preparing a paper on the use of dictionaries by the US Supreme
Court. We subsequently had some correspondence on the subject, and she used
the first edition of my book as one of her main sources. The paper was
published in the Arizona State Law Journal 30:2 (Summer 1998), pp. 275-336,
under the title, "The Law of the Word: Dictionary Shopping in the Supreme
Court." It analyzes a number of cases in which dictionaries were used,
particularly by Justice Scalia. You might find this of interest. There is
also a book I recall by a lawyer named Solan (I forget his first name) with
whom I had correspondence some years ago about this subject. I believe he
published a small book about it. Both were well aware of the limitations of
using dictionaries as authorities in judicial decision-making.

-----Original Message-----
From: Frank Abate <abatefr at earthlink.net>
To: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>; DSNA list
<DSNA at yahoogroups.com>
Date: Sunday, May 20, 2001 7:15 AM
Subject: [DSNA] RE: Query re the non-divinity of lexicographers

>Rudy Troike said:
>Dear Friends of Lexicography:
>        While many of you who regularly contribute to the ADS list are
>admirably and modestly aware of the human frailties of those who labor in
>this vineyard, we are also aware of the popular tendency to deify
>lexicographers, Webster's having sat beside the Bible on many a frontier
>shelf as the only two books in the household.
>        A linguistically savvy friend of mine tried convincing a judge
>recently of the possible human failings of published dictionaries, and was
>met with visceral rejection. His concern arises from the observation that
>dictionaries are the primary source of linguistic wisdom among the
>judiciary (as if lexicographers didn't have enough weight on their
>shoulders!). He would like to be pointed to some good sources that might
>be useful in getting across the point that dictionaries are human products
>and might (sorry!) at times not attain the perfection that the judiciary
>        Thanks,
>        Rudy
>Rudy makes a valuable observation.  In support, I add that, when visiting
>the US Capitol, I was struck by the presence of a M-W Unabridged on the
>floor of the US House chamber, on a stand to the right of the speaker's
>platform.  It was the only book in view.
>I did not know about the reverence of judges for dictionaries, but it does
>fit with the general American tendency to view the dict as something of a
>divinely inspired creation.  Allen Walker Read did a paper specifically on
>this, and certainly Sidney Landau's general study "Dictionaries: The Art
>Craft of Lexicography" would be a good source for a true picture of how
>dicts are really produced.
>One analogy I have used is that to the American book-buying market, it's as
>if God Almighty handed "The Dictionary" down to Noah Webster on stone
>tablets.  If the public only knew!  Or maybe it's better (for lexos, at
>least) that they not know?
>[I forward this also to the new DSNA list.]
>Frank Abate
>Dictionary & Reference Specialists (DRS)
>Consulting & Lexicographic Services
>(860) 510-0100, ext 2311
>abatefr at earthlink.net
>For more information:http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/dsna/index.html
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