FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

A Reluctant – NOT Reticent – Posting

Posted in Words by Mike Sacks on January 2, 2010

I reluctantly make this post because it is my third consecutive reliance on an NYT story and I’d like to present a bit more variety in my sourcing at this early stage in F1@1F’s life.  But my will has been overborne by this irresistible piece of English-major-turned-law-student porn:

Barnhouse said the opportunity to recover taxes on the cigarettes was an “inchoate” interest, not yet fully formed. “Any recovery would not be property until it became choate, until there was an amount of money assigned to it,” he explained.

Scalia stopped Barnhouse cold. “There is no such adjective,” he declared. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as choate. There is inchoate, but the opposite ofinchoate is not choate.”

Not willing to let the matter go, Scalia went on, “It’s like gruntled,” noting that some people mistakenly think that the opposite of disgruntled is gruntled. …

By ruling from the bench on what is and isn’t a word, Scalia is following in the footsteps of his former colleague William Rehnquist, who once interrupted the argument of a lawyer who dared to use the nonstandard word irregardless. “I feel bound to inform you that there is no word in the English language irregardless,” Rehnquist said. “The word is regardless.”

Speaking of reluctant, the article reminds me of a recent dinner-table-turned-email debate I had with my friend Hannah Seligson–read her work at TDB and buy her new book!–over the use of the word “reticent” as a synonym of “reluctant.”  I stood firm against its definition’s aggressive expansion beyond its expression-based borders,  whereas she agreed with Merriam-Webster’s appeasement of “reticent’s” imperial ambitions.  For such a battle between my originalist and her evolving lexiconic attitudes, cf. back to the NYT Mag:

Despite such complaints, choate developed a momentum all its own, at least in American legal circles. By the time of the 1954 Supreme Court case that Scalia later sought to expurgate, the word had become enshrined in property law, even lending its name to the so-called choateness doctrine of liens. Choate now appears in most major U.S. law dictionaries, and Garner says it is accepted and used “even by those who deprecate its origins.” Well, except for one justice railing against a word he has decided isn’t a word after all, no matter how many dictionaries it enters.

Dictionaries be damned: side me with Scalia on this one.

One Response

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  1. Miguel said, on January 4, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    `I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

    `But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’


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