Johnson's dictionary

James C Stalker stalker at MSU.EDU
Tue Apr 5 00:55:21 UTC 2005

Hitchings, of course, made the claim that constitutional lawyers referred to
Johnson for "original intent."  I was curious about that claim.  It seems to
be, perhaps, a bit overstated.


Baker, John writes:

>         I took a look at which dictionaries actually do get cited in the Supreme Court opinions of the past half-century, using some simple searches on Westlaw.  These are not definitive numbers, but they give a good idea of relative frequency.
>         There were 12 citations of Johnson's Dictionary, the earliest of which was in 1988, which was around the time that conservative lawyers and judges started emphasizing "original intent" in interpreting the constitution.  However, these citations typically are accompanied by citations of other early dictionaries, such as those of Bailey, Sheridan, and Webster, and occasionally by citations of modern dictionaries.
>         The Oxford English Dictionary was cited 47 times, a number dwarfed by the 135 citations to Webster's Third.  It will come as no surprise to lawyers that Black's Law Dictionary was the champion with 165 citations.  Of course, most of these citations were for terms in modern statutes, not the constitution.
>         There are 27 citations to Webster's American Dictionary.  Most of these are to the 1828 edition and used for constitutional interpretation, but some are to the 1860 or the 1889 edition, and even some of the 1828 citations are for the meaning of early statutes.  Still, I think that the claim that U.S. judges and lawyers prefer Johnson to Webster is disproven.
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
> Of James C Stalker
> Sent: Sunday, April 03, 2005 9:37 PM
> Subject: Re: Johnson's dictionary
> The Financial Times (April 2/3, 2005) has an interesting piece by Henry
> Hitchings who has just published "Defining the World: The Extraordinary
> Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary,"  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  It is,
> after all, the 250th anniversary of the publication of said dictionary.
> Hitchings claims that US lawyers consult Johnson, not Webster, in order to
> interpret the US Constituition.  Interesting claim.  If Roger is still out
> there lurking, he might have a comment on that point of view.

James C. Stalker
Department of English
Michigan State University

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