Sunday, October 01, 2006

Getting catty about legal language

As an adherent of descriptive linguistics, I take literally John Dos Passos' credo, "Most of all U.S.A. is the speech of the people." Vox populi and all that jazz. Still, there are phrases that ring false in my ears. Though protesting morphological muffs is a prescriptivist's habit, I'll indulge it. Ugly language is just that, ugly.

Cat got your tongue?
Cat got your tongue?

With no further ado, I offer this short list of annoying legal barbarisms:
  1. Incent. The word incent represents an appalling abuse of the English language. Anyone who utters it deserves to have his or her tongue strafed raw. Anyone who writes it deserves broken knuckles. According to Westlaw, 159 sources in the JLR database and 28 sources in ALLCASES have committed this barbarism. Yuck. What exactly is wrong with inspire, motivate, or (if you must) incentivize?

  2. Empirics. In standard English, empirics is nothing more or less than the plural form of the noun empiric, which denotes a person "who relies on practical experience." In a medical context, empiric is synonymous with charlatan. But legal sources are fond of using this word, by obvious analogy to -ics words such as economics and thermodynamics, to signify empirical data, empirical analysis, or empiricism. Folks, those are distinct concepts, and using a shortcut such as empirics is one of those cute habits that come with too many advanced degrees. That hasn't stopped an eyepopping 217 sources in JLR from using the word this way, including three articles that have incorporated empirics into their titles. Among the 34 sources in ALLCASES, at least one uses the word in the standard sense: "irresponsible quacks and empirics." Smith v. Beard, 56 Wyo. 375, 110 P.2d 260, 265 (1941).

  3. Various misspellings of foreword. I've seen them all. Forward. Foreward, which isn't even a "real" word. Regardless, when you misspell foreword, it's embarrassing. Foreward has nevertheless appeared in 1447 academic sources in JLR and 337 judicial sources in ALLCASES. Thirty-three articles incorporate foreward into their titles. Indeed, foreward is so common that Westlaw intercepts a search for it in JLR as one likely to generate too many results to be useful. These results understate the number of instances on which foreword has been misspelled. For obvious reasons, searching for misuses of forward is harder. Okay, once and for all: f-o-r-e-w-o-r-d.

  4. Juris doctorate. The proper name of the degree is juris doctor, Latin for "doctor of law." Nevertheless, Google reports a staggering 627,000 results (including some official law school and bar association websites) for a search based on the phrase "juris doctorate." For its part, Westlaw documents 743 sources in JLR and 121 in ALLCASES. Clank.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I share your disdain for stupid diction, and "incent" is certainly among the stupider. But see the Oxford English Dictionary, where the entry reads:

incent, v.
orig. and chiefly N. Amer.
trans. To provide (a person) with an incentive; to encourage, incite, inspire.

1977 Associated Press Newswire (Nexis) 30 Nov., Many are gone, including the man who incented me, Ed Murrow. 1981 Chem. Week (Nexis) 6 May 36 If you set realistic performance targets with enough stretch in them, then you're trying to ‘incent’ the participants on things that are within their control. 1997 Post & Courier (Charleston, S. Carolina) 13 Mar. A16 Workers need to be ‘incented’ with bonuses, stock options, and dispersed decision-making.

10/01/2006 3:55 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Hi Dean,

Thanks for the OED reference. I agree that incent has reached the general speaking public, at least in the United States, and therefore warrants inclusion in a descriptive account of the wordstock available to us speakers of American English.

Notice that at least two of the references cited by the OED cast incent in italics. That suggests an awareness by those writers that incent is jargon at best and nonstandard usage at worst.

Then again, the unapologetically prescriptivist American Heritage Dictionary dutifully reports the emergence of this word in its entry on incent, with nary a quibble over its propriety.

I'm resigned to incent's emergence as a word. But I still think it's ugly, and I disdain the withered verbal skills of anyone who uses it.


10/01/2006 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I suggest two more abuses of language--albeit only one in English--that are becoming increasingly prevalent in law-related materials? One is the substitution of the term "rein in," which is an equestrian metaphor for slowing something down, for the incoherent "reign in". Although Juan Carlos reigns in Spain, he did not "reign in," but "reined in" a coup d'etat early in his reign. The other is the misspelling of the term "de minimis" as "de minimus." In Latin the word "minimis" in this phrase is in the ablative case and should be pronounced "mini-meese," as in a diminutive Ed Meese.

10/02/2006 12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I'd rather stay as anonymous as possible - your handwriting on the board is extremely hard to read. It's large enough, but the cursive is...muddled. I know the chalk is small, but could you print instead?

10/02/2006 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but "incent" is a useful word, which is why it's not going away any time soon. I'ts much better than your awful suggestion "incentivize," which is simply incent with trailing detritus.

It captures something different than your suggestions "motivate" (because "incent" suggests a colder, perhaps monetary, reason for acting) or "inspire" (which suggests incenting of a higher or even spritual nature).

Otherwise, it's a great blog! And I'd be up for horse whipping anyone who tries to palm off a JD as a doctorate.

11/10/2006 2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with #3 and may agree with #4. i like #1 and #2 is ok.

2/06/2009 2:23 AM  

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