Corpora and the Second Amendment: “bear”

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

Starting with this post, I’m (finally) getting to the meat of what I’ve called “the coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment.” The plan, as I’ve said before, is to more or less mirror the structure of the Supreme Court’s analysis of keep and bear arms. This post will focus on bear, and subsequent posts will focus separately on arms, bear arms, and keep and bear arms. (I won’t be discussing keep arms because I have nothing to say about it.)

In discussing the meaning of the verb bear, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller said, “At the time of the founding, as now, to ‘bear’ meant to ‘carry.’’’ That statement was backed up by citations to distinguished lexicographic authority—Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Thomas Sheridan, and the OED—but evidence that was not readily available when Heller was decided shows that Scalia’s statement was very much an oversimplification. Although bear was sometimes used in the way that Scalia described, it was not synonymous with carry and its overall pattern of use was quite different.

The new evidence I’m referring to comes from two sources. One is the book Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English by Philip Durkin. Durkin is one of the two Deputy Chief Editors of the OED, the OED’s principal etymologyist, the author of the Oxford Guide to Etymology, and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Lexicography. Borrowed Words wasn’t published until after Heller was decided, so the information I’m about to discuss wasn’t available to Scalia.

One of the things Durkin does in Borrowed Words is to try to determine the point when bear was replaced by carry as the verb primarily used in English to express the meaning that Scalia is talking about. Durkin reports that carry came into Middle English (from French) no later than about 1375. And although he notes that it is “very difficult to say when it became more common than bear in the sense of ‘to bear by bodily effort,’” he finds it “very likely that carry was the basic word in this meaning by the seventeenth century (at least in the ancestor of modern standard English).”

The other source of evidence that bear was not synonymous with carry is the data from the BYU Law Corpora, which very much bears Durkin’s conclusion out. When Justice Scalia said in Heller that in 1789 bear meant carry, he was talking about the carrying of tangible objects. But although the corpus data provides extensive evidence of carry being used to denote that kind of carrying, there was much less evidence of bear being used that way. Overall, the differences in how the two words were used greatly outnumbered the similarities.

Although my discussion of keep was based entirely on data from COFEA (the Corpus of Founding Era American English), starting with this post I will be relying on both COFEA and COEME (the Corpus of Early Modern English). Because COEME includes texts from a period of more than 300 years, I’ve limited my searches in COEME to the period 1760-1799, which is the period covered by COFEA. For more information about the data, and in particular about the issue of duplication within each corpus and between the two corpora, see the Introduction pages of the spreadsheets in which the data is set out, which can be downloaded  here.

(carry or bear) + nouns denoting tangible objects. Since what we’re concerned with is the carrying of tangible objects, I started by trying to find out which nouns acted most frequently as each verb’s direct object—a task that I carried out by running searches that would return a list of the nouns that occurred within two words to the right of each of the verbs. Looking for nouns within a two-word span after the verb made it possible to find not only plurals and noncount nouns, which can appear immediately to the right of the verb (carry objects, carry stuff), but also count nouns, which can’t (carry an object but not *carry object (the asterisk before “carry object” marks it as ungrammatical)). I initially limited the search to the 100 most frequent collocates, but later expanded to the top 200.

With respect to carry, many of the nouns in the search results—including many that were at the top of the list in terms of frequency—denoted tangible objects. These included arms, gun(s), provisions, goods, letters, baggage, supplies, mail, boards, load(s), corn, flag, torches, coal, prizes, packs, basket, bag,  parcels, flour, timber, pistols, luggage, bundle, firearms, banners, and  bedding.

For bear, on the other hand, nouns like those were much less in evidence. Of the few that I found, the most frequent one by far was arms, which  I’ll defer discussion of until the post that deals specifically with bear arms. The other nouns in this category fall into two groups. In the first group, which consisted mainly of torches, flags, prize, cross, and sword, the nouns were used in phrases denoting the kind of physical carrying that Justice Scalia had in mind. The most frequent of these uses was (perhaps unsurprisingly) bear + cross—primarily referring to Christ, but also used metaphorically.

[Update: I want to clarify the statement that the most frequent tangible-object noun used with bear was arms. As discussed in a later post, arms was often used to mean ‘weapons,’ but it was also frequently used to convey a variety of figurative meanings, and when used that way it did not denote tangible objects. Therefore, when I  refer in this post to arms as denoting a kind of tangible object (namely, ‘weapons’), that should be understood to mean only that arms was often used that way, not that it was always used that way. In particular, it should not be understood as as a statement about how arms was used when it was part of the phrase bear arms.]

The second group consisted of infrequently-occurring nouns having to do with agriculture and horticulture, such as fruit, wheat, wood (as part of a living plant or tree), acorns, corn, and so on. As far as I could tell, none of those nouns occurred in phrases denoting the same kind of carrying. Rather, the nouns appeared in phrases in which bear was used primarily in the sense of ‘bringing forth,’ as in land bearing wheat, and plants bearing fruit, corn, and acorns. (Bear fruit was also used metaphorically to mean essentially ‘yield results.’) And in a few instances, such as the one below, bearing wood was used as a noun phrase denoting the fruit-bearing portion of a tree or plant.

The mode of bearing in peaches, nectarines, and apricots, is on the last year’s wood , which makes it necessary to shorten, in order to a certain supply of bearing wood for the next year; and to contrive to have succession wood in every part of the tree, is one of the chief arts of the pruner.

Another difference between carry and bear was that the data for carry—but not for bear— included uses in which it was various categories of human beings that were described as being carried from one place to another. While we don’t usually think of humans as objects, that’s only because doing so would feel dehumanizing. So it’s certainly relevant to the current inquiry that the corpus data included statements in which the words captives, passengers, and negroes were used as direct objects of carry, as they did in these examples:

When a corsair takes a prize he carries the captives directly to the palace of the dey, where the European consuls assemble

a heavy penalty upon any of their citizens who ſhall be engaged in the buſineſs of carrying Negroes from Africa to any part of the world whatever

Here We saw two or 3 Passage Waggons—a Vehicle with four Wheels contrived to carry many Passengers and much Baggage.

I have ingaged Capt. Saml. Crozier a very sober usefull Man & who has been in the habit of carrying Passengers to conduct you to Lisbon & he will tomorrow commence on putting the Schooner in compleat order for your reception

Note that in some of these uses, carry was used in a sense that is now largely obsolete, in which it means to take, accompany, or escort someone or something somewhere.

There were also concordance lines, such as the following, that followed a slightly different grammatical pattern, but that nevertheless referred to the carrying of people:

On the 13th of November, a Sweedish ship sailed from Marscilles, bound to Philadelphia, and carried as passengers all the Americans, (late prisoners in Algiers) except those who tarried on board the Fortune.

They came by water in 30 canoes, slew seven Indians and wounded two Sagamores who lived near Boston, and carried away captives one of their wives with divers other Indians

The officers and principal inhabitants among the Swedes, were carried prisoners to New Amsterdam; and thence to Holland

There were no results for bear that fit either of these patterns. Although bear did occur with direct objects denoting various categories of people, in all of those cases the verb was used in a different sense. These nouns included children, babes, sons, infants, citizens, and subjects, and they were modified by phrases such as new born, first born, free born, and natural born.

This isn’t to say that bear was never used to refer to the transportation of human beings from one place to another. There was, for example, this bit of verse:

She, deemed Circassian, on her infant day, Was from thy native frontier borne away.

But from what I saw in the data, examples like this were few and far between.

Among the most frequent noun collocates of carry were home, trade, and places. These collocations differed from those I’ve been discussing, in that the nouns did not act as the direct object of carry, but the phrases in question nevertheless had to do with the carrying of tangible objects (including people).

Home was used to denote the place where something or someone was carried to:

We should think that no cotton can be carried home from Bombay this year, and even the year following.

Our captain, you may be sure, was in no haste to carry her home, being fallen most desperately in love with her

Trade occurred in the noun phrase the carrying trade, which the OED  describes as denoting “the trade or business of carrying goods, esp. over sea between different countries.” Similarly, places occurred in the noun phrase carrying places, which denoted “a place where goods, etc. have to be carried overland in inland navigation” (OED). I saw nothing comparable in the data for bear.

Also found in the data for carry were uses in which the literal, physical sense of the word was metaphorically extended to include the carrying of information, as in carry messages, carry intelligence, carry dispatches, carry tidings, carry news, and carry complaints. Once again, I found no analogous uses of bear.

(carry or bear) + (burden(s) or weight).  Perhaps the most significant overlap between the results for carry and those for bear (putting aside carry/bear arms) is seen in the pairs carry+burden(s) & bear+burden(s), on the one hand, and carry+weight & bear+weight on the other. Both of the nouns in these pairs can be used literally, to denote physical burdens and weights, and carrying or bearing a physical burden or weight necessarily amounts to carrying or bearing a tangible object. But both words can also be used metaphorically, and to speak of “carrying” or “bearing” a metaphorical burden amounts to using the verb metaphorically as well. It therefore makes sense to compare the pattern of usage associated with carry+burden(s) against the pattern associated with bear+burden(s), and to similarly compare the pattern associated with carry+weight against the one associated with bear+weight.

In each case, the uses were divided between literal and metaphorical. But there were some significant differences between the patterns of usage for each word—differences that were both quantitative and qualitative.

The biggest quantitative difference was seen in the data for burden(s), with the literal use being 100 times as frequent for carry burden(s) as for bear burden(s). The literal-to-metaphoric ratio for carry was roughly 10:1, while for bear it was the inverse, 1:10.

(These figures are based on the combined results from both COFEA and COEME, after eliminating duplicates. I should note that there’s roughly four times as much data for bear burden(s) as there is for carry burden(s), and that the total dataset for carry burdens is fairly small in absolute terms. There  are 349 concordance lines for bear, and 85 for carry. Therefore, the data for bear burden(s) is presumably more reliable than the data for carry burden(s). But even so, a 10,000% 1,000% difference in frequency seems pretty substantial.)

However, when we turn to bear weight and carry weight, the data paints a more complicated picture. The ratios of literal uses to metaphoric uses for these two phrases doesn’t show anything like the disparity that we saw with respect to bear burden(s) and carry burden(s). For bear weight the ratio was roughly 0.8:1, while for  carry weight it was about 1.2 : 1. Thus, literal uses were only 1.5 times as frequent for carry as they were for bear.

When viewed in isolation, this could be seen as evidence that bear weight was used fairly often to denote the kind of physical carrying that the Supreme Court in Heller had in mind. But when the data is examined more closely, it points toward a different conclusion.

Here’s why. So far, I’ve been looking only at how the words burden and weight were used in each concordance line—whether they were used literally, to denote a physical burden or weight, or instead metaphorically. To the extent that the burden or weight was metaphorical rather than literal, the act of bearing or carrying the weight must similarly be metaphorical. That by itself means that the act couldn’t have constituted “carrying” in the sense relevant here. But that leaves open the question whether the acts denoted by literal uses of bear weight similarly constituted the relevant kind of carrying. And the data suggests that for the most part, they did not.

In most of the instances of bear weight in which weight was used literally, bear was used in a way that denoted what I’ll call “immobile support”—the weight was physically supported, without any horizontal movement, as in these examples:

If the board were one inch thick, and 12 inches deep, and if it were capable of  bearing a weight of 12 when the pressure was applied perpendicular to the thin way of the board,

into the woods, by walking along shore upon the ice, which still covered the sea, and had strength sufficient to bear any weight.

on which grow a great number of oak trees, almost all the branches of which, able to bear the weight, are, in the proper season of the year, loaded with eagle’s nests

myself to clamber out at the top, which I had nearly reached when a stone on which my whole weight bore, dislodg’d and down falls the stone, and myself to the bottom again.

In contrast, most of the examples of carry weight highlighted the movement of the weighty object from one place to another, with the supporting of the object’s weight being a part of that action rather than the focus of independent attention. For example:

The camels usually carry 800lb. weight upon their backs, which is not taken off during the whole journey, for they naturally kneel

of the baggage and flour to be on pack horses as most convenient but horse Waggons might be had to carry about 1800 Weight and roads for them easily made,

from place to place by Elephants, and if their necks and trunks have no more room for burthens, they will carry an additional weight in their mouth

It is proposed the frigates of thirty six guns shall carry the same weight of metal of the forty four gun ships, but only to have twenty eight guns upon one

Out of the 60 literal uses of bear weight, in only 4 of them (6.7% of the total) was bear used in this sense of ‘carry.’ Since there were 70 metaphoric uses, those uses were more than 17 times as frequent as the uses that denoted carrying. And while that’s only about one-sixth of the difference in frequency that is seen with respect to bear burden(s) and carry burden(s), it is a big difference from what the raw numbers seem to suggest.

We can see another interesting difference between between bear weight and carry weight when we compare the metaphoric uses of each phrase. In almost all the instances of bear weight, the phrase denotes being metaphorically burdened or weighed down by something, as in these examples:

thus the queen discovers herself to be the firm support of the state, when, after having for a long time borne its weight, she is not even bowed down under its fall.

I’ll support thee; for in addition to the oppression of our common grief, thou, sweet girl, must bear the agonizing weight of disappointed love.

Her father in stern accents replied, do you think Madam, you are so well able to bear the weight of mine anger?

only the little finger of the Episcopalian hierarchy, we should think the burthen comparatively light, though we were called to bear the weight of the loins of the Presbyterians of New-England.

Note the semantic similarity between these examples and the examples of literal uses of bear weight, which I described as denoting “immobile support.” What we see in the metaphoric uses is something that is closely analogous to that. (Which is not surprising, given the parallels between metaphor and analogy.) And a bit later we’ll look at some additional uses of bear whose semantics are similar.

Just as most of the metaphoric uses of bear weight are semantically similar to its literal uses, the metaphoric uses of carry weight are semantically similar to its literal uses. And by the same token, they differ semantically from the metaphoric uses of bear weight in much the same way that the literal uses of carry weight differ from the literal uses of bear weight.

Examples typifying the metaphoric uses of carry weight include these:

I own that in my mind your observations upon that point carry much weight

his Objection, at first Look, seems to carry Weight with it

Let us not look on it as superstitious to suppose that such wishes may still carry weight with them

You will consider yourselves as the leaders of this people; that your example in your public department will ever carry much weight and energy in it

Whereas to bear weight (whether literally or metaphorically) is to be subjected to the force of the weight, these examples show that to metaphorically carry weight is to convey or direct the metaphoric force of that weight onto someone or something else. This parallels what we saw in the literal uses of carry weight, which denoted the movement of the weight from one place to another. And it similarly resembles what we saw in a different set of metaphorical uses of carry, namely those having to do with conveying information: carry messages, carry intelligence, carry dispatches, carry tidings, carry news, and carry complaints. In fact, the metaphoric uses of carry weight can be regarded as an abstract extension of those comparatively more concrete metaphoric uses: rather than denoting the conveyance of specific information or types of information, they denote the conveyance of the persuasive force of information or communication, or of communicatively significant actions or institutions.

So to sum up this part of the discussion: What we can see in the data on bear/carry + burden(s)/weight are patterns of usage along two dimensions. The dimension that’s of primary interest here is the one along which the usage of each word contrasts with that of the other. And even though we’ve been looking at only two nouns, we’ve seen several different kinds of contrast.

The second dimension is the dimension along which we can look at the use of each verb separately, comparing the differences and similarities in how it is used, depending on which noun it combines with. With respect to each verb, there has been an underlying semantic commonality having to do with the flow of energy between the participants in a situation. To carry something, whether a physical object or an abstract entity, is to direct physical or abstract force to the object or entity, and thereby out into the world. To bear something, on the other hand, is to experience force that is imposed by the object. In other words, carrying is a form of acting on something, while bearing is a form of being acted upon.

This isn’t to say that these patterns are followed in every use of bear and carry. They aren’t. But the uses that don’t fit the patterns are merely exceptions; they aren’t so widespread as to prevent the patterns from emerging in the first place.

bear + other nouns

Apart from talking about bear burden(s) and bear weight, I’ve haven’t said much about how bear is used in the corpus data; I’ve talked more about the fact that it hasn’t been used in the ways that we’ve seen carry be used. So I want to talk briefly about what the data for bear does show.

The data can be broken down into several categories.

Language from legal documents. Most of the uses in this category constitute legal boilerplate: bear date, bear name, bear witness, bear testimony, bear test(e). The one use that’s not part of a purely formulaic recital is bear interest. These uses have an abstract similarity to some uses of carry, and in several of them it would be possible to replace the bear with carry with little loss of meaning. Even then, however, bear is used in an abstract sense that doesn’t denote physical carrying.

Birth-related. This category includes uses such as new born babes, born a citizen, natural born citizen, and born in Ireland. There is also an agricultural variation on this theme: bear fruit (in the literal sense), bear clusters of berries, and so on. And also bear fruit in the metaphoric sense.

Compass bearings. This category consists of uses such as At noon Cape Egmont bore about N.E. and in this direction, at about four leagues from the shore, we had forty fathom of water.

Relationship. In the uses in this group, bear is part of an expression asserting that  something has a specified relation to something else. The basic template is X bears analogy (resemblance, proportion,/comparison) to Y.

Withstanding trouble and woe. This category is all about suffering through bad conditions and events: bear adversity, bear affliction, bear drought, bear famine, fatigue, hardships, hunger ill-will injuries insults misfortunes reproof trouble….

Is it not composed of a mixture of people from different countries; some more, some less capable of bearing fatigue and hardship?

Prosperity is the touchstone of virtue; for it is less difficult to bear misfortunes than to remain uncorrupted by pleasure.

God , thou knowest that I have borne my sufferings meekly: I have wept for myself, but never cursed my foes

friend, be you assured, for your consolation, that we the American captives, in this city of bondage, will bear our sufferings with fortitude and resignation

These examples may have a familiar ring to them, because they all instantiate the semantic pattern  in which bearing X means essentially ‘experiencing X’ or ‘undergoing X.’ And with that in mind, it may not be a surprise when I tell you that there is a corresponding set of uses of carry in which the verb’s direct object similarly denotes bad stuff, but in which the direction of causation is reversed, such as carry terror, carry desolation, carry conquest, carry havoc, and carry devastation. To carry these bad things is not to experience them but to inflict them on others:

the arms of Scanderbeg and the scimitars of his illustrious soldiers, who were an army of heroes, carried death at every stroke, and gave decisive victory

remember, that Great-Britain, during last war, did at one time carry conquest through every quarter of the globe

Ye who worship the mammon of unrighteousness, and sacrifice nations for gain; who have carried desolation to the utmost bounds of the earth

the French partisans at Avignon and citizens of the neighbouring departments, have run over the Comtat, carried devastation with them wherever they met opposition and forced the inhabitants to declare in favor of France

And in conclusion…

Having gone through the corpus data, it seems to me indisputable that at the time of the framing of the Constitution, bear was in general not synonymous with carry. Although it was sometimes used to denote the kind of physical carrying that the Supreme Court in Heller had in mind, those uses were infrequent and were exceptions to the general pattern of usage.

Thus, when Justice Scalia wrote that “at the time of the founding, as now, to ‘bear’ meant to ‘carry,’’’ his statement had a kernel of truth but didn’t accurately reflect how the word was ordinarily used.

However, that doesn’t resolve the question of how bear arms as used in the Second Amendment was likely to have been understood by the American public of 1789. As I’ve said, arms was one of the most common nouns that acted as the direct object of bear. That means that bear arms is potentially the biggest exception to the general rule that bear didn’t mean carry. I haven’t addressed that issue in this post, and am instead saving it for a post of its own. But before I get there, I’m going to talk about arms. Because it turns out that Heller’s short treatment of that word—concluding simply that it meant ‘weapons’—was at least as much of an oversimplification as its discussion of bear.


Further reading. If you’re interested in learning more about the semantics of bear, you’ll find a detailed discussion, based on an informal corpus of texts from the 1960s and 1970s, in On Monosemy: A Study in Linguistic Semantics, by Charles Ruhl (publisher, Google Books, Amazon).

Hat tip to Dennis Baron, who was the first person to look up bear arms in the COFEA and COEME; see his comment to my Language Log post announcing the opening of the two corpora for beta testing (scroll to the bottom),  and his subsequent op-ed in the Washington Post. It was Baron’s op-ed that inspired me to undertake this look at the Second Amendment.

Cross-posted on Language Log.

3 responses to “Corpora and the Second Amendment: “bear”

  1. Neal, 4 out of 60 is 6.7%, not 15%

  2. Neal, 4 tokens out of 60 is indeed 1/15, but that’s 6.7%, not 15%

  3. In the immortal words of Barbie, math is hard. But thank you for the heads-up; my boneheaded error has been corrected.

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