Of Words and Contracts: Arbitration and Lexicology

By Dilts, David A. | Dispute Resolution Journal, May-July 2005 | Go to article overview

Of Words and Contracts: Arbitration and Lexicology


Dilts, David A., Dispute Resolution Journal


A look at how dictionaries, which do not always agree on the meaning of words, can affect the outcome when labor arbitrators use them to interpret contract language.

When we think of words, we often only think of a single meaning. But words can have many meanings and applications. Not surprisingly, even the term "lexicology" has a number of different meanings, depending on which dictionary you consult. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 10th edition, defines it as "the study of the form, meaning, and behaviour of words"1; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, defines it as "a branch of linguistics concerned with the signification and application of words"2; and the American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th edition, similarly defines it as "[t]he branch of linguistics that deals with the lexical component of language."3 Depending on the particular application of the word "lexicology," one definition may not be a perfect substitute for another. In other words, these definitions could be said to be ambiguous.

The importance of lexicology to our modern society is not widely recognized. Its importance is rarely associated with much outside of the realms of academia and publishing. It is generally associated with dictionary editors and libraries, certainly not with any grand adventures.

The Professor and the Madman4 is a wonderful tale of the creation of the OED and Dr. William Chester Minor, a hapless contributor to that endeavor. Dr. Minor, an American army officer, was incarcerated in the Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Great Britain for the murder of one of the Queen's subjects. Ironically, during his stay in Broadmoor, he found the time to read, research, and write many entries for the first edition of this path-breaking dictionary. Of greater importance is the parallel tale of how the dictionary was conceived and brought to life by its editor, James Murray. In essence, The Professor and the Madman is an adventure in lexicology, an art that is at the core of the interpretation and application of language.

It is the role of the arbitrator to interpret and determine the proper construction of contract language. Lexicology is, then, the business of arbitrators. In other words, an arbitrator must perform the role of a lexicologist with respect to the parties' agreement.

Dictionaries are one authoritative source of information concerning the meaning of words relied upon by those facing quandaries of meaning. As lexicographer Richard Trench stated when he first proposed the OED: "A dictionary should be a record of all words that enjoy any recognized life span in the standard language." And at the heart of such a dictionary, he went on to say,

should be the history of the life span of each and every word. Some words are ancient and exist still. Others are new and vanish like mayflies. Still others emerge in one lifetime, continue through the next and the next, and look set to endure forever. Others deserve a less optimistic prognosis....5

If Professor Trench is correct, then the English language is a living thing-its parts changing, evolving, growing and, in some cases, falling into disuse. Therefore, our language is not a static means of communication, but clearly a dynamic one. The result is that there is a life span for any standard meaning of words. This dynamic is nowhere more evident than in the four corners of a collective bargaining agreement. The initial agreement may have been negotiated 50 years earlier when words had a clear and specific meaning for the negotiators. However, with the passage of time, the nature of the work, the technology used, and even the product or service being offered, may have changed dramatically, thereby making it more difficult to apply the original contract language. These changes may be so great that the original contract language may have become inapplicable (i.e., obsolete). So while the original bargain may outlive the negotiators, the words they used to create that bargain may not be easy to apply, or may no longer apply.

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