Judges and dictionaries/Vertrauen in das Wörterbuch

Is it possible to explain to judges that dictionaries are not definitive proof of usage?
Geoffrey Nunberg has written on this topic before, giving examples of how the U.S. Supreme Court uses dictionaries (dictionaries have been used by the Court more since 1990 than in the previous 200 years).

bq. In one 1993 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a man who traded a rifle for some cocaine could be sentenced under a statute that provided for an increased penalty for someone who uses a firearm to obtain narcotics. Writing for the majority, Justice O’Connor justified the decision by citing one dictionary’s definition of use as “to employ.” To his credit, Justice Scalia dissented, following a rule of interpretation that you could paraphrase as “give me a break, please.” In ordinary usage, he said, using a firearm means using it as a weapon, not as a medium of barter.

At Düsseldorf, Nunberg gave more examples to show in what ways English dictionaries fall short of the mark (to say nothing of bilingual dictionaries).
A Merriam-Webster definition of assassinate fails to indicate that it is applied to a prestigious person being killed by a less prestigious one.
Was the word redskin derogatory in 1965? Dictionaries didn’t mark it as such before 1980.
In 1954, did ‘pay for every broadcast’ include TV, or just radio?
(In these cases, it was shown that corpora can give good evidence of usage).
And a Florida court, relying on a dictionary, found that ‘subject to’ was a passive verb. (Has someone got that reference? It may well be online).

Ah – languagehat has it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.