Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pronunciation of “Certiorari”

I always thought Katharine Hepburn mispronounced the word certiorari in the movie Adam’s Duane Rib. As I recall, she hesitated a faction of a second and pronounced it “ser-shuh-RARE-ee” (rhyming with dairy). I thought the Anglicized “rare” was wrong for a Latin word, and that the actress was simply unaware of the legal term.

Well, the pronunciation of certiorari is a lot more complicated than I thought. In an entertaining piece in the latest Green Bag, Regent University’s James Duane (pictured at right) delved into the topic and found no set pronunciation of the term. The 2004 edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, for which Duane was an editor, presented three pronunciations without specifying a preference. So Duane decided to see how Supreme Court Justices pronounce the term. He found five pronunciations: retired Justice Stevens and Justices Thomas and Alito say “ser-shee-or-RAHR-ee” ( rhyming with Ferrari); Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Breyer say “ser-shee-or-RARE-eye” (rhyming with fair guy);  former Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor and Souter said “ser-shee-or-RARE-ee”(rhyming with dairy); Justice Kennedy says “ser-shee-or-ARR-eye,” rhyming with far cry; and Justice Sotomayor says “ser-shee-ARR-ee.” In light of this disagreement among the justices, Duane finds the most pragmatic to be Justice Ginsburg, who seems to have concluded that “certiorari simply should not be spoken aloud in polite society.” While she often writes the word, she avoids it when speaking from the bench, using the shorter “cert” or simply referring to the Court granting “review.” Justice Kagan takes the same approach.

I’ve always said “ser-shuh-RAHR-ee,” on the theory that tio is a single syllable as in nation and the final vowels should have Latin pronunciations. But now I think I’ll just say “cert.”


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