The Law of the Word: Dictionary Shopping in the Supreme Court

63 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2006


This article undertakes a critical evaluation of the Supreme Court's use of dictionaries. It does so by describing and applying principles of lexicography to show that dictionaries are not as authoritative, precise, or scholarly as we and the Justices often assume. Modern lexicographers see their task as describing how speakers of English use words. They do not seek or claim to prescribe how language should be used. Although modern dictionaries rely in part on other dictionaries' definition, they also develop an ongoing citation file, a collection of potential entries based on a variety of sources. Because of the constant change and growth of language, however, dictionaries are inevitably out of date by the time they are published. Moreover, definitions, which are abstracted from the survey of usages, are subject to stringent constraints on length. Technical vocabulary poses a particular challenge. Legal dictionaries, while they try to fill the gap in general dictionaries regarding specialized use of common terms, have their own limits. Black's Law Dictionary, for example has used judicial opinions as its primary citation source. The article applies such insights from lexicography to the Supreme Court's use of dictionaries in a number of cases, including Chisom v. Romer, National Organization for Women. v. Scheidler, MCI Telecommunications v. American Telephone and Telegraph, and Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities.

Suggested Citation

Aprill, Ellen P., The Law of the Word: Dictionary Shopping in the Supreme Court. Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 30, p. 277, 1998, Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2006-12, Available at SSRN:

Ellen P. Aprill (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School Los Angeles ( email )

919 Albany Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-1211
United States
213-736-1157 (Phone)
213-380-3769 (Fax)

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