Tag Archives: Law

Facing trial 😊

19 Jan

Meanwhile, in an Israeli small claims court, a landlord is suing a prospective tenant for pulling out of a rental agreement, and the verdict is in:

“This is the place to refer once again to those graphic symbols (icons) sent by Defendant 2 to the Plaintiff. As stated, they do not, under the circumstances, indicate that the negotiations between the parties have matured into a binding agreement. However, the sent symbols support the conclusion that the defendants acted in bad faith. Indeed, this negotiation’s parties’ ways of expression may take on different forms, and today, in modern times, the use of the “emoji” icons may also have a meaning that indicates the good faith of the side to the negotiations. The text message sent by Defendant 2 on June 5, 2016, was accompanied by quite a few symbols, as mentioned. These included a “smiley”, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more. These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the Plaintiff’s great reliance on the defendants’ desire to rent his apartment.

And so, by virtue of the emojis in the following text message – one of which is a chipmunk

“Good morning 😊  we want the house 💃🏻👯‍✌️☄️🐿️🍾  just need to go over the details …When suits you?”

– the judge found in favour of the landlord and awarded him 8,000 shekels to compensate for lost income.

The case, in 2017, excited a lot of legal comment, as one might imagine. Some agree with the judge that the smiley, in particular, helps to “convey to the other side that everything is in order” when it in fact is not. Others, such as the legal scholars Gabriella Ziccarelli and Eric Goldman, disagree, pointing out that “emojis are frequently used as emotional supplements to preceding words or sometimes even used as a punctuation substitute”, so cannot be relied upon as the court suggests. But nearly everyone accepts one thing – that the emojis cannot simply be overlooked. As Ziccarelli and Goldman say: “We can’t just consider the text and ignore the emojis … Because we must assume the prospective tenant included them for a reason, how do the emojis modify or supplement the initial text message’s words?”

Their discussion of that topic runs to considerable length, even theorising as to why the tenant might have used the “double bunny girls” emoji instead of the “single bunny girl” variant. (Even they are defeated by the chipmunk, however.) Elsewhere, in an extensive article on Slate, Amanda Hess describes numerous cases in which the courts have attempted to decode non-verbal messaging, including one in which “an anonymous comment posted to an online message board that appeared to accuse a city worker of corruption was negated by the inclusion of a tongue-out emoji”.

The confusion that even well-known emojis have caused in these cases is perhaps warning enough never to try to use them in headlines (not that there’s much call for that on a broadsheet). And that’s before you get to the confusing ones: the emoji of a person blowing hard through their nose – 😤 – is widely interpreted in the west as signifying anger, whereas in many parts of Asia it is seen as expressing pride or dominance: a bull-snort of power, drawing from manga iconography. Its official name is “Face with Look of Triumph“. Emojis are far more compact than words, but – probably for that reason – far more ambiguous.

And another lesson for editors is, once again, how grindingly literal a court can be about anything – anything – you might publish. We have previously discussed instances in which a judge released a criminal 10 years early because of a typo in a document – in the full knowledge that it was a typo – and where a biker was given only a year in jail for GBH because mistakes in the drafting of the law made it impossible to pass any other sentence. The judicial system can be agonisingly prescriptivist and unimaginative: lawyers are trained to pursue meaning narrowly through thickets of poor drafting and make a limited determination of meaning based on what was actually said, even contrary to evidence of intent. Ambiguity is cute in linguistics, but not in court, and it’s wise to edit with that in mind.

Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”