Wednesday, July 02, 2014

I Know You Understand What You Think I Said, But ...

One of the interesting things about the Internet is that it puts all sorts of information at your fingertips that you never knew was there. I often run across a reference in one online article that leads me to another place, and then to another, and then ... well ... eventually you learn something. Often, what you learn is that web surfing is a waste of time. But not always ...

Yesterday I was reading an OpEd article about the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case which referenced something I'd never heard of before - the "Dictionary Act" - as it related to the definition in law of a "person." I googled "Dictionary Act," and - lo and behold! - I was directed to Title 1 (General Provisions), Chapter 1 (Rules of Construction), Section 1 (Words Denoting Number, Gender, and so Forth) of the US Code, which is familiarly known as the "Dictionary Act." It begins, "In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress*, unless the context indicates otherwise...", and then proceeds to specifically parse a number of words and phrases frequently used in the law. I found these to be of particular interest:

"words importing the singular include and apply to several persons, parties, or things" (this makes sense to me);

"words importing the plural include the singular" (I can agree with this one, too);

"words importing the masculine gender include the feminine as well" (this is, I'm sure, aggravating to many women, who resent the exclusive use of masculine pronouns in official writing, but it does make certain sense ... it saves having to come up with wordy circumlocutions that incorporate both sexes**).

"words used in the present tense include the future as well as the present" (clearly, you want the law you write today to apply in the future ... it's not much good if it applies only at the moment it was written);

"the words 'person' and 'whoever' include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals." (this is the one I have trouble with, as do many others who are concerned about the implications of decisions like Hobby Lobby and Citizens United. Equating a "corporation, company, association, firm, partnership, society, or joint stock company" to a person seems pretty ludicrous to me, even if the law can be tortured into declaring that they're the same);

but I think the best part of the Dictionary Act is this one:

"the words 'insane' and 'insane person' and 'lunatic' shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis***." I think that should cover Congress, the Supreme Court, the far right, the far left, and every ludicrous troll that spews venom on the Internet without knowing what he+ is talking about.

I'm so glad that the very first part of the US Law Code clarifies that.

Have a good day. Use the right word the right way.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Good luck with that.

** And it could be worse ... how long will it be before the LGBT community decides we need utterly non-gender-specific pronouns, and what should they be?

*** "For real!", as my granddaughter Leya would say.

+ Remember, "words importing the masculine gender include the feminine as well."


Grand Crapaud said...

My head is spinning.

Mike said...

Seems like the dictionary act was written just for business.

Dave Peterson said...

Isn't that last one essentially a tautology?

eViL pOp TaRt said...

This Act does tend to confuse, apparently what the lawmakers wanted, anyway.

Banana Oil said...

So Congress granted personhood status to corporations. Amazing.