This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Nuts and Bolts: forensic linguistics I.

What does the word snail mean?

Well, it's not easy to say, because snail, like most words, describes a group of things. What is the animal you think of when you hear the word snail like? Is it plain? Striped? Tabby? Is it eating a lettuce? Asleep in its shell? On a plate in a restaurant? In a rockpool?

The job of forensic linguistics is to work out exactly what language means when it's used in the law.

One obvious part of forensic linguistics is working out just what laws mean.

Laws need to be absolutely clear (what is a snail? As I recall AP Herbert wrote a lovely story, one of his Misleading Cases, in which a legal judgement depends upon whether snails are wild and ferocious, or whether they are better described as domestic).

As well as problems of definition, what if changes in the meaning of a words over time has led to a change in the law? There's a fashion at the moment for saying absolutely! in conversation, but you'd have to be very careful indeed when using it when making a will.

What if a law has to be translated into another language? (In England, law has been written in English, then French, then back to English again; with, of course, lots of Latin thrown in at various times to confuse things.) That's bound to cause all sorts of problems.

What about new words that come along? It's almost impossible to keep up with everything. In 1999, for instance, Judge Francis Appleby had to stop a case involving the theft of a Teletubby to ask what it was.

In this instance, the important thing, of course, is not that Judge Appleby didn't know what a Teletubby was, but that before the case was over he did. 

Word To Use Today: forensic. This word comes from the Latin word forēnsis, which means public, from forum, which means public place. 

The phrase forensic linguistics first appeared in 1968. It was coined by Jan Svartvik.

1 comment:

  1. Have to admit to feeling a little tired after reading this most interesting post! How exhausting legal matters always are, aren't they? I shan't say absolutely in a carefree manner ever again!