Word-slicing … a lawyerly art form

Posted on 04-16-2016 by
Tags: Top Stories

You don’t want a surgeon with shaky hands; likewise, you don’t want a lawyer with a shaky vocabulary. “Shaky,” in the legal realm, is an inability to tower over a definition and slice it with molecular exactitude.

Last week, this exactitude shaved a thin layer from the U.S. citizenship exam. Since 2008, the exam had described religious freedom as a right to “worship.” Senator James Lankford challenged this language, arguing that:

The freedom of religion is much more than just the freedom of worship …. Worship confines you to a location. Freedom of religion is the right to exercise your religious beliefs – it is the ability for Americans to live out their faith or to choose to have no faith at all.

Lankford isn’t a lawyer by trade, but apparently, he wields a steady vocabulary when it comes to words. In accordance with Lankford’s definition (and his word scalpel), “freedom of religion,” not “freedom of worship,” will now be included in the exam materials.

To the layman, this might seem like a silly distinction, but to a lawyer, the hair's breadth between synonyms unbolts a universe of definitions and wiggle room. Word-slicing is tightly wound into our lawyerly DNA, as evidenced by our legal forefathers who practiced the fine art over 200 years ago.

The Declaration of Independence, attributed to Thomas Jefferson (a lawyer), was actually a concerted effort of draftsmanship. Its review involved the Committee of Five, which included John Adams (also a lawyer). The Committee made several alterations, none more monumental than their reduction of three words into a hyphenated word.

Originally, Jefferson had described “these truths” to be “sacred and undeniable.” In revising the Declaration, the Committee carved away “sacred and undeniable” and installed the more forceful “self-evident”:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….

Lawyers can be branded “wordsmiths,” but in actuality, they’re “word-surgeons” … or more on point, “word-cellularists”; i.e., experts who scrutinize words on a microscopic level. The formidable ones probe the flimsy walls that separate words, recognizing the minute, yet advantageous, differences. To help you punch through these flimsy walls, sharpen your word-knowledge with these five articles:

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