Category Archives: Word meaning

Corpora and the Second Amendment: “bear arms” (part 2)

Part 1 is here. 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.

Update Concordance-line references have been changed to reflect revisions to the spreadsheet from which the lines were copied, as have figures for the total number of concordance lines and for the various subtotals that are given.

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

In this post and the next one, I will discuss the corpus data for bear arms.

This post will focus on the data that I think is consistent (or at least arguably consistent) with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of bear arms in District of Columbia v. Heller, and the next one will deal with the data that I think is inconsistent with the Heller interpretation.

As I discussed in my last post, the court in Heller held that the “natural meaning” of bear arms in the late 18th century (i.e., its “ordinary meaning” (i.e., what it ordinarily meant)) was “wear, bear, or carry upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.” As I read the data, very little of it is consistent with that interpretation.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “bear arms” (part 1), plus a look at “the people”

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.

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This is the first of what will be three posts on bear arms; it will be devoted to critiquing the Supreme Court’s discussion of bear arms in District of Columbia v. Heller. My examination of the corpus data on bear arms will appear in my next two posts. In the meantime, if you’re interested, you can read discussions of the data by Dennis Baron (“Corpus Evidence Illuminates the Meaning of Bear Arms,” in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly) and by Josh Blackman & James C. Phillips (“Corpus Linguistics and the Second Amendment,” in the Harvard Law Review Blog), both of which reach conclusions consistent with mine. (The piece by Blackman & Phillips is especially noteworthy, given that they are both gun-rights advocates.)

My focus in this post will be on the Supreme Court’s conclusion that at the time the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified, bear arms unambiguously meant ‘carry weapons, for purposes of being prepared for a confrontation,’ without regard to whether the carrying was in connection with military service. What I conclude is that even without taking account of how bear arms was actually used, the court’s arguments don’t hold up. Assuming for the sake of argument that bear arms could reasonably have been understood to mean what the court said it meant, the court didn’t show that it unambiguously meant that.

That’s not to say that I think bear arms was ambiguous. As I’ll discuss in the next two posts, the corpus evidence points toward the conclusion that bear arms unambiguously conveyed the military meaning that the Supreme Court rejected: “to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight” or “to wage war.” But even if the evidence were equivocal, the absence of evidence unambiguously supporting the court’s interpretation would still be important.

That’s because the court’s analysis in Heller depends crucially on its conclusion that bear arms was unambiguous. It was that conclusion that enabled the court to interpret the Second Amendment’s operative clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”) without taking into consideration its prefatory clause (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”). In the court’s view, if the operative clause was unambiguous, the prefatory clause “does not limit or expand [its] scope.” So if court was wrong in thinking that the operative clause was unambiguous, it was wrong in refusing to consider whether the prefatory clause affected its meaning. And if the prefatory clause plays a role in interpreting the operative clause, the argument against the court’s interpretation is strengthened.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “arms”

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.

This post on what arms means will follow the pattern of my post on bear. I’ll start by reviewing what the Supreme Court said about the topic in District of Columbia v. Heller. I’ll then turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at how arms was used over the history of English up through the end of the 18th century, when the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified.. And finally, I’ll discuss the corpus data.

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion had this to say about what arms meant:

The 18th-century meaning [of arms] is no different from the meaning today. The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘[w]eapons of offence, or armour of defence.’’ Timothy Cunningham’s important 1771 legal dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.’’ [citations omitted]

As was true of what Scalia said about the meaning of bear, this summary was basically correct as far as it went, but was also a major oversimplification.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep” (part 2)

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.

In  my last post (longer ago than I care to admit), I offered a very brief introduction to corpus analysis and used corpus data on the word keep as the raw material for a demonstration of corpus analysis in action. One of my reasons for doing that was to talk about the approach to word meaning that I think is appropriate when using corpus linguistics in legal interpretation.

That approach, which is described in my article “A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics” (pdf), is based on work in corpus-based lexicography, and it provides a way of dealing with puzzling fact about language. Many words have multiple possible meanings when they are considered in isolation, but when used in a sentence they are typically unambiguous. The basic insight that grew out of lexicographic corpus analysis is that when a word is used in a given context, what is generally thought of as the meaning of the word in that context is often more appropriately regarded as the meaning of a larger unit consisting of the word together with certain elements of the accompanying text. And it turns out that it is often possible to identify the kinds of contextual elements that are associated with particular meanings.

This has implications for the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation, because it can provide guidance in querying the corpus and then sifting and analyzing the data. The key is to look for concordance lines in which the relevant word is used in a context that is grammatically and semantically similar to the context in the legal provision at issue. (For an idea of the kind of similarity I’m talking about, see my analysis of Muscarello v. United States and my post “The semantics of sleeping in railway stations.”)

The approach that I’ve described also has implications for this reexamination of District of Columbia v. Heller. Those implications arise from the fact that at a key point in the decision, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that when bear arms is used to denote activities such as serving as a soldier and fighting in a war, its use is idiomatic. And the approach I’m following provides a way of thinking about idiomaticity that differs from the traditional view of the phenomenon—which was the view underlying this aspect of Heller.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Preliminaries and caveats

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

Before I get down to the business of discussing the corpus data and its implications for the Supreme Court’s analysis in Heller, I want to say a few things about what this series of posts will and won’t be about, I want to offer some caveats, and I want to outline the sequence that the posts will follow.

What the posts will and won’t be about

These posts are going to focus on the meaning of the phrase keep and bear arms and on the Court’s analysis of that phrase. I won’t be talking about the other parts of the Second Amendment (a well-regulated militia, the security of a free state, the right of the people, and infringed).

The discussion will concentrate on linguistic issues rather legal issues. I won’t be talking about whether the Court’s holding in Heller is correct. I will, however, talk about what my linguistic analysis means for Heller‘s conclusion that the Second Amendment’s text is unambiguous and therefore that the prefatory clause plays no role in the amendment’s interpretation.

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Artis v. District of Columbia, part 2: Units of meaning and dictionary definitions

Sometimes, it’s immediately obvious from the opinions that a case raises questions about interpretation that are interesting, important, or both. Smith v. United States, in which the question was whether trading a handgun for drugs amounts to “using” it, is a classic example. At first glance, the Supreme Court’s decision in Artis v. District of Columbia  doesn’t seem to be in that category. It doesn’t offer interesting linguistic issues that call attention to themselves, except for someone who is familiar with the work of the linguist John Sinclair and the lexicographer Patrick Hanks. But with some digging, Artis yields some issues that I think are  interesting and significant, having to do with new approaches to analyzing questions of word meaning and with how not to use dictionaries.

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#GorsuchDictionaries: Into the lexicographic weeds (updated, and updated again)

Note: If you’re coming back to this post after having read it already, be sure to note the additional update I’ve added, which comes right after the discussion that dates the W2 definition back to 1934.

A new hashtag popped up last week, #GorsuchStyle, devoted to spoofing Justice Gorsuch’s writing style, or at least the style that is on display in the opening sentences of his dissenting opinion in  Artis v. District of Columbia (pdf): “Chesterton reminds us not to clear away a fence just because we cannot see its point. Even if a fence doesn’t seem to have a reason, sometimes all that means is we need to look more carefully for the reason it was built in the first place.”

I mention that, not because this post will be about Gorsuch’s writing style (it won’t), but because I’m not above a little clickbait-y coattail-riding. It’s not gratuitous clickbait, mind you. This post is about Gorsuch’s dissent in Artis. And it remains to be seen whether it’s effective clickbait. Part of me thinks that if your title includes the word lexicographic, maybe you’re doing clickbait wrong. On the other hand, #AppellateTwitter likes dictionaries, so maybe not.

What this post will be about is Gorsuch’s choice of which dictionaries to cite in his Artis dissent. As the title suggests, it will be heavy on lexicography, but it will also touch on what that choice says about whether Gorsuch is a snoot, like his predecessor was, and if so whether that ought to play a role in his decision about what dictionaries to cite. I also plan on doing a separate post to talk about the contrasting approaches to word meaning that are on display in Artis, both of them resonating, though in opposite ways, with what I’ve written about that subject (link, link).

Update: The second post can be found here.

As you may have gathered know if you’re familiar with some of the things I’ve written about word meaning, I’m not a big fan of the central role that dictionaries play in the way lawyers, judges, and legal scholars deal with issues of word meaning. For this post, though, I’ll put that dissatisfaction aside, and will treat the use of dictionaries as perfectly appropriate interpretive tools.

THE ISSUE of which dictionary to use is a recurring one in the academic literature about judges’ use of dictionaries. It’s usually discussed under the rubric of “dictionary shopping”—the practice of looking for the definitions that are most supportive of the result you want to reach. That practice is of course the norm for lawyers arguing cases, but it’s problematic for judges or legal scholars, who aren’t supposed to start out with a preferred outcome and then reason backward to the arguments that can support it. However, there is at least one circumstance in which selectiveness about the dictionaries that one cites can be appropriate: when the purpose of citing the dictionary is merely to show that a particular reading of the word in question is possible. And in fact that was Gorsuch’s purpose in relying on the definitions he cited; he was arguing that the statute was ambiguous.

Nevertheless, Gorsuch’s dictionary choices in Artis are subject to some significant criticisms in terms of what might be called lexicographic relevance; the definitions he relies on don’t necessarily shed much light on the meaning of the statutory language that was in dispute. And in that respect, the dissent is not the first time that judges have gone lexicographically astray.

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