LawProse Lesson #104
What do lawyers need to know about dictionaries? A lot, frankly. Dictionaries aren’t created equal. So you must consider the source to ensure that what you’re consulting is thorough, accurate, and reputable. A good dictionary marshals the vocabulary of a language, or the specialized vocabulary of a particular field, and arranges the original and historically developed meanings — literal and figurative ones — of each word. If you’d like to spend five minutes enlightening yourself on the variable qualities of dictionaries, and which ones are best used for various purposes, see Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, “A Note on the Use of Dictionaries,” in Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 415-24 (2012). For historical purposes, you can generally do no better than The Oxford English Dictionary. But that’s not the source to consult if you need to know the acceptable modern pronunciations of a word. For that purpose, you’ll need a current desktop dictionary. For American English, the best ones are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, The New Oxford American Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, and Webster’s New World Dictionary. Whatever dictionary you use, get the most out of it by consulting the front matter (the explanatory essays at the beginning). Print sources are superior on this score: it’s very hard to find front matter for many online dictionaries. You must know something about a particular dictionary’s ordering of senses — is it oldest to newest, most common to least common, etc.? Dictionaries approach these issues differently. Does the dictionary use a symbol such as ÷ to mark a nonstandard pronunciation or † to mark an archaic or obsolete form? If you haven’t consulted the front matter, you’ll never know. Contrary to what is often said, by the way, judicial textualists don’t think dictionaries contain all the pat answers that are needed for legal interpretation: dictionaries are well worth consulting, but they hardly answer all the subtle problems of construing legal instruments. One commonly asked question: How much does Black’s Law Dictionary change from edition to edition? In recent years, tremendously. The book has grown fuller, more scholarly, and more accurate since the award-winning seventh edition appeared. Each new edition has contained many thousands of new terms. If you can find a sixth or earlier edition (pre-1999), set it alongside the current ninth edition (2009). Open up to any entry in both books and compare the pages. Spend five minutes spot-checking words of interest to you. You’ll probably be astounded at the differences. And you’ll inevitably learn some things about the art of lexicography. By the way, if you ever spot an improvement that could be made in Black’s Law Dictionary — whether correcting a legal nuance or suggesting a new sense or an entirely new entry — send your suggestions to the editor in chief: Bryan A. Garner (email@example.com). Your comments will be gratefully received.