Archive for the ‘Language and the law’ Category


October 31, 2013

The Dinosaur Comics of  October 7th:

Blackmail, prostitution, pornographic movies, and big banking. Quite a set.

The Slants, still at bat

October 22, 2013

From several sources recently, news of the battle by the band The Slants to register their name for trademark protection in the U.S. Here’s an NPR story, “Asian-American Band Fights To Trademark Name ‘The Slants’ “, and a brief thoughtful piece “The Slants v, the USPTO” by Mark Liberman on Language Log.

The Slants have been up against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for some four years now (an earlier report appeared on this blog here). At issue is a U.S. statute that bars granting registration to a name that “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter”; USPTO objects to “Slants” on the ground that it is a disparaging term for people of Asian descent. The band has taken various legal tacks over the years; the current case (in a federal circuit court) relies on appealing to the First Amendment, arguing that the USPTO rulings deny the benefits of trademark on the basis of the content of the Slants’ speech.


August 30, 2013

In the New Yorker of 8/26/13, a letter on p. 5 from Richard M. Perloff, Professor of Communication at Cleveland State University, Cleveland OH, beginning:

Dangerous Liaisons
Hendrik Hertzberg, writing about Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and their forerunners in the delicate pas de deux between private misdeeds and public behavior, assumes that sex scandals have an objective quality (Comment, August 12th and 19th). Whether a series of transgressions merits the label “scandal” is itself a contentious issue that is a function of social norms and cultural values.

Perloff goes on to discuss some specific cases, and I’ll get to these. But first some lexicographic notes.


Baby names

August 19, 2013

In the NYT on the 17th, “In God’s Name, or Baby ‘Messiah,’ Competing Claims of Religious Freedom” by Mark Oppenheimer, beginning:

Last week, when a Tennessee judge forcibly changed an infant’s name from Messiah to Martin, it was hard to decide which was more noteworthy, the parents’ grandiosity in naming their child for the one they consider their Savior or the judge’s religious zealotry in prohibiting the name.


Language trickery

August 12, 2013

In today’s Pearls Before Swine, Rat tricks Goat into saying something that gets him in trouble:

Shades of the mantra “Oo watta na Siam”.  (There used to be a Thai restaurant called Watana Siam in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but it seems to have morphed into a completely different Thai restaurant.)

In any case, is asking someone if they want to get high a punishable offense? Does it count as an offer of drugs?

Wednesday puns

July 31, 2013

Two of today’s cartoons: a Dilbert and a Pearls Before Swine, both with elaborate puns:


This turns on the verb weasel, plus the legal phrase (beyond a) reasonable doubt (plus the derivation of adjectives in -able from verbs).


And this one turns on the noun and verb hex, plus the food compound Tex-Mex.

In each case, “getting” the comic requires two pieces of information, from different spheres. (And both beyond weaselable doubt and Hex Mex could be viewed either as elaborate imperfect puns or as complex portmanteaus:  weaselable + beyond reasonable doubt, hex + Tex-Mex.)


The Word of God

July 2, 2013

The most recent Scenes From a Multiverse:

This is an astonishingly common idea: that morality comes from the pronouncements of religion (which are assumed to be divinely inspired, so that ultimately, morality comes from God), and only from those, so that non-believers cannot, by definition, have morals. But reasonable people will challenge the assumption.


For June 26th

June 27, 2013

From several sources on Facebook, this impressive photo of San Francisco’s City Hall in rainbow mode, in honor of yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and California Prop 8:

And tomorrow is Stonewall Day, followed immediately by Pride Weekend in San Francisco.


June 19, 2013

From the NYT‘s Opinion pages on Sunday the 16th, “A Song for the Exonerated” by Francis X. Clines:

Having lost 16 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for rape and murder, Jeffrey Deskovic opted for the simple exuberance of karaoke to celebrate the master’s degree he earned late last month from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I enjoyed singing ‘Live to Tell,’ ” he says of his graduation visit to a loud and friendly bar.

“Too many things, not enough time,” says Mr. Deskovic, an unusual 39-year-old member in the growing category of “exonerees” — a word he loves — who have lived to tell their tales of bungled evidence, forced confessions and the deus ex machina of DNA. He eventually won millions in damages after Westchester police and prosecutors were officially excoriated for a “tunnel vision” investigation that mismanaged exculpatory evidence.

The word is exoneree — not in the OED, NOAD3 or AHD5, but very much in the news in the U.S. thanks to the Innocence Project and similar efforts at exoneration via DNA.


Crowdsourced lexicography

June 8, 2013

In the NYT on May 21st, a front-page story by Leslie Kaufman, “For the Word on the Street, Courts Call Up an Online Witness”, beginning:

The wheels of justice move slowly sometimes, but not, apparently, as slowly as Webster’s New World Dictionary.

Slang has always been a challenge for the courts in cases that involve vulgar or insulting language. Conventional dictionaries lag the spoken word by design. That has lawyers and judges turning to a more fluid source of definitions: Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced collection of slang words on the Internet.

The online site, created by a college freshman in 1999, has found itself in the thick of cases involving everything from sexual harassment to armed robbery to requests for personalized license plates, as courts look to discern meaning and intent in the modern lexicon.



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