stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Jan 23 03:15:24 UTC 2009

At 9:39 PM -0500 1/22/09, Victor wrote:
>I am rather concerned about a dictionary being cited as proof of lack of
>semantic ambiguity. It seems the definition in Black's is a bit of an
>oversimplification in order to provide professionals with simple concise
>quotations. If this were sufficient to understand the meaning of these
>terms, textbooks on criminal law would be substantially shorter.
>I would say exactly the opposite. "Murder" is *very* ambiguous in legal
>context, leading some states to redefine crimes related to a loss of
>life without using the word "murder" or, occasionally, without referring
>to "manslaughter". Consider the states, for example, that have replaced
>all legal code references to "murder" with "intentional homicide" of
>various degrees, followed by a few more articles that refer to
>"negligent homicide" of varying degrees.  This is followed by, for
>example, "vehicular homicide", which, again, can vary by degrees,
>"felony murder" which is define without actually using that phrase
>(although it is a lot less ambiguous than "murder" by itself). There is
>no reference to "justifiable killing" at all, but there are mitigations
>and defenses one can apply in homicide cases. This "murder" avoidance
>seems to suggest an existing ambiguity that needed to be rectified.
>But all of this is not relevant to my original question. Referring to
>someone as having been "killed" is ambiguous as to whether the "killing"
>has been performed by another person or by an inanimate object (e.g., a
>falling rock, or something that is not even an object in a physical
>sense, such as a poison or a "heart attack") or by an act ("killed by a
>fall from the roof"--although coroner's reports would usually avoid such
>terminology). But is this a structural ambiguity or merely a question of
Maybe this is a purely terminological dispute.  Like Arnold, I find
it useful to distinguish between true ambiguity and lack of
specification/underspecification.   There is no compelling evidence
from crossed-reading tests or other sources that compels us to regard
"kill" as ambiguous between the instrument of the killing, the
motivation or intention of the killer, etc.  Yes, someone can be
killed by a falling rock or an assassin, but there's no reason to
consider "kill" as ambiguous for that reason, any more than because
the killing could take place in New Haven, New York, or the New
Hebrides.  This is simply not a lexical ambiguity or homonymy or
homophony of the kind we have in "bank" vs. "bank", "bear" vs.
"bear", "bat" vs. "bat", etc.  But if you find it more convenient to
apply "ambiguity" as a cover term for both kinds of lexical
relations--the "uncle" kind (that we're calling underspecification)
and the "bat" kind (that we're calling ambiguity or homonymy)--that's
all there is to it.


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