Sunday, September 15, 2013
In the latest Green Bag, Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner explain that not all dictionaries are equally authoritative. As an example, they propose a judge who must decide whether fighting cocks are poultry under a particular statute. In inferior dictionaries, the judge will find poultry defined as domestic foul. Thus the judge would conclude that fighting cocks are poultry. But better dictionaries add this important point: poultry are raised for their meat or eggs, a qualification that shows fighting cocks are not poultry.
The article, which originally appeared as Appendix A to Scalia and Garner’s book Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, lists the most authoritative general and legal English dictionaries for particular time periods. Scalia and Garner paise the Oxford English Dictionary as a reliable source for historical terms, but note that it is not as useful for recent changes. They say two of the best current general dictionaries are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. See their article for the full lists.