Dialect variation in the Times

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jun 30 18:29:37 UTC 2008

Nobody has yet mentioned this piece from yesterday's Week in Review at

The Chief Justice, Dylan and the Disappearing Double Negative
ADAM LIPTAK, June 29, 2008

Four pages into his dissent on Monday in an achingly boring dispute
between pay phone companies and long distance carriers, John G.
Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the United States, put a song lyric
where the citation to precedent usually goes.

"The absence of any right to the substantive recovery means that
respondents cannot benefit from the judgment they seek and thus lack
Article III standing," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. " 'When you got
nothing, you got nothing to lose.' Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone,
on Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia Records 1965)."

Alex B. Long, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and
perhaps the nation's leading authority on the citation of popular
music in judicial opinions, said this was almost certainly the first
use of a rock lyric to buttress a legal proposition in a Supreme
Court decision. "It's a landmark opinion," Professor Long said.

Chief Justice Roberts gets the citation wrong, proving that he is
neither an originalist nor a strict constructionist. What Mr. Dylan
actually sings, of course, is, "When you ain't got nothing, you got
nothing to lose."

It's true that many Web sites, including Mr. Dylan's official one,
reproduce the lyric as Chief Justice Roberts does. But a more careful
Dylanist might have consulted his iPod. "It was almost certainly the
clerks who provided the citation," Professor Long said. "I suppose
their use of the Internet to check the lyrics violates one of the
first rules they learned when they were all on law review: when
quoting, always check the quote with the original source, not someone
else's characterization of what the source said."

I was especially interested in the question under investigation,
since I cited the same line in my ADS paper on double negation in
January as an instance of code switching between negative concord and
standard varieties, and I also checked to make sure I had the line
right after noticing, as Liptak and Long did, that it shows up in the
"When you got nothing" (as well as the "When you ain't got nothing")
form on various web sites.  I ain't got no iPod, but I did check the
two "original source" versions (live and studio) of "Like a Rolling
Stone" in my iTunes, and indeed both have negative concord, pace the
Chief Justice.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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