stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Fri Jan 23 15:32:46 UTC 2009

I completely disagree. Very, very few crimes are "ambiguous" in legal
contexts. The crimes are all explicitly defined in excruciating detail by
statute. There may be ambiguity in the popular usage of "murder," but none
at all in legal contexts. There are lots of ambiguous legal terms, but
vanishingly few of them in the criminal code.

I would say the examples of different terms for types of killings are all
examples of the lack of ambiguity in the term "murder." These other crimes
are all degrees where premeditation is involved to a lesser extent and the
term "homicide" in these cases appears to be replacing "manslaughter" rather
than "murder." And the modifier in "felony murder" (a killing committed
during the commission of another felony) distinguishes it from classical
murder, where the killing is explicitly premeditated. The term "murder" is
being reserved for the most heinous of killings, exactly the opposite of

A good example of an ambiguous crime is in the impeachment clause of the US
Constitution, "high crimes and misdemeanors." ("Misdemeanor" had a
different, more serious, sense in the 18th century than it does today.) This
was discussed on ADS-L and elsewhere during the Clinton impeachment, so I
won't go into detail, but there is no consensus or conventional wisdom on
what constitutes a "high crime" or a "high misdemeanor," or even if the
clause refers to "high" misdemeanors as opposed to ordinary ones. This is
true ambiguity.

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From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Sent: Thursday, January 22, 2009 6:40 PM
Subject: Re: stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

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

As a counterpoint, I would suggest "cheek" and "breast".


Dave Wilton wrote:
> "Murder" is not at all ambiguous in a legal context; murder is "the
> of a human being with malice aforethought" (Black's Law Dict., 8th ed.).
> Murder is illegal in all cases. There are gradations of murder, but these
> aren't "ambiguous;" the gradations are clearly delineated in criminal
> statutes.
> "Manslaughter" is the legal term for killing without malice aforethought.
> Again, manslaughter is always a crime.
> "Homicide" is the general legal term, "the killing of one person by
> (Ibid.) and encompasses murder, manslaughter, and justifiable killings.
> death certificates of executed felons give "homicide" as the cause of
> Again, I wouldn't use "ambiguous" in the case of homicide--it's pretty
> and not vague at all, just general.
> Generality or non-specificity is not the same thing as ambiguity.

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