The Politically Correct US Supreme Court and the Motherfucking Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: Using Legal Databases to Trace the Origins of Words

By Shapiro, Fred R. | Verbatim, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Politically Correct US Supreme Court and the Motherfucking Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: Using Legal Databases to Trace the Origins of Words


Shapiro, Fred R., Verbatim


I admit I have had some second thoughts as to the appropriateness of the title above. Perhaps I should have called it "The Politically Correct United States Supreme Court and the Cocksucking Texas Court of Criminal Appeals." The meaning of my title will become apparent as I proceed.

Historical lexicography is the study of the etymology, chronology, and meaning of words and phrases by means of a method first proposed in Germany in the early nineteenth century and later exemplified by the Oxford English Dictionary. This historical method requires that each meaning of each word be traced, to the extent practicable, to its earliest appearance in print, and that all developments in the word's usage be illustrated by dated and documented quotations using the word. The project of tracing words and phrases to their earliest appearances in print is an enormous and difficult one, involving research of a highly sophisticated and ingenious nature. Now, however, human ingenuity can be supplemented by automated searches, retrieving the earliest usage of a term in the documents covered by a database.

I first recognized this utility in 1978, when, as a student at Harvard Law School, I used Lexis to "antedate" the earliest citation for the word mootness in the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement. This search occurred a year before Nexis came into existence and was undoubtedly the earliest use of a full-text online database for this purpose.

In a January 1979 letter, I proposed to the OED Supplement staff that Lexis be employed to obtain citations for "legal terms or other words, such as perhaps business or technological terms, likely to occur in law reports." This suggestion was not immediately taken up, but in 1982 the OED Supplement began to use Nexis for citation collection, both for early examples of words and phrases and for quotations filling gaps in their word files.

Because Nexis's coverage begins only in the 1970s, we are in the realm of what Robert Burchfield has called short-term historical lexicography, and it is only for recent neologisms that Nexis will have utility in tracing early uses. For these, however, Nexis will often antedate the evidence of even the richest traditional citation files: OUP's extensive Nexis searching testifies to this fact.

The two legal full-text databases, Lexis and Westlaw, do have historical coverage extending far enough back to be useful for "long-term historical lexicography." Many of their files begin in the nineteenth century, some even earlier. Although the judicial opinions in these files feature a limited vocabulary--legal jargon and such other words as are admitted into the conservative discourse of appellate judges--interesting results can be obtained. I have used these databases to push back the origins of the term executive privilege, to trace the expression human rights to 1787, and to antedate hundreds of other legal and nonlegal terms listed in the OED.

Perhaps the most spectacular antedating I have found through legal database searching is the phrase politically correct. At the time I searched for this very important buzzword, the earliest example of politically correct known to lexicographers was from a 1936 book by H. V. Morton. Amazingly, however, Lexis and Westlaw reveal that these words appeared in the landmark 1793 United States Supreme Court decision, Chisholm v. Georgia.

In that case Justice James Wilson wrote in his opinion:

   The states, rather than the people, for whose
   sake the states exist, are frequently the objects
   which attract and arrest our principal attention.
   ... Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate
   kind prevail in our common, even in our
   convivial, language. Is a toast asked? 'The
   United States,' instead of the 'People of the
   United States,' is the toast given. This is not
   politically correct.

The usage here, referring to linguistic etiquette, is actually quite close to the current meaning, although without the satire now associated with the term. …

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