Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Dictionary and the Man: The Eighth Edition of Black's Law Dictionary, Edited by Bryan Garner

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Dictionary and the Man: The Eighth Edition of Black's Law Dictionary, Edited by Bryan Garner

Article excerpt

Bryan Garner is a man with a mission: a dictionarian,1 if not a dictioneer.2 Garner, in again updating and revising the "standard U.S. law dictionary,"3 seeks not only to accurately define a comprehensive list of legal terms, but more fundamentally, to elevate legal scholarship.4 It is an ambitious undertaking (and one whose premise might be questioned by many scholars). But if there is anyone suited for such pursuits, in both intellect and temperament, it is Bryan Garner.

Most of us think of dictionaries as handy reference tools, to be consulted when all else fails. In 1910, a reviewer of the second edition of Black's Law Dictionary (Black's)5 was clearly in desperate straits when the book arrived to his rescue: "We were so grateful for the assistance rendered by this work in a moment of exigency when it arrived that we are not disposed to view it other than favorably."6 And, as practical tools to students and scholars alike, legal dictionaries are well-used. However, Garner's dictionaries (and, in due time, they may well be called such-as opposed to Black's), while satisfying the demands of the definition-hungry in times of famine, aspire to greater goals. The eighth edition of Black's, continuing the mission begun in the seventh, seeks to educate, inform, analyze, and describe from a higher perspective. Garner's definitions are current and succinct, yet are placed in a historical perspective and in a context of usage that is sensible and, in many cases, enlightening. If, as it has been suggested, dictionaries "reveal a truth,"7 the eighth edition of Black's strives to reveal a higher truth, one that has solid (and cited) foundations in centuries of American and English jurisprudence.

Black's is the last standing comprehensive American legal dictionary intended for a wide audience. Unlike Bouvier's8 and Ballantine's,9 which have not been updated in decades, Black's is supported by the West/Thomson legal publishing behemoth and benefits from the resources that publisher provides. As the sole remaining current example of a long legacy of American legal dictionaries, there may be little need for a review of Black's eighth edition. After all, if a current, comprehensive legal dictionary is required, one has no choice but to turn to Black's. But, because we think the eighth edition makes significant contributions to lexicography and distinguishes itself from its predecessors, review it we will.

We might choose any number of criteria for an evaluation of the eighth edition.10 What is most important in assessing its value, though, both as a reference tool and as a work of scholarship, is how well it fulfills its purposes. Garner has set lofty purposes indeed. The eighth edition fulfills its purposes well; its distinctiveness as a law dictionary-the personality, if you will, of the work itself and of its editor-is, in part, what enables it to so effectively accomplish (or nearly accomplish) those goals.

1. "The business of the lexicographer is . . . to do what . . . cannot be done . . . ."11

It is well to distinguish between the purpose of a dictionary (and a law dictionary, at that) and the intent behind the individual definitions that make up the dictionary as a whole. And, while the dictionary itself, as well as the definitions of which it consists, should be both comprehensive and convenient (the "two canons of lexicography"12), the line between "completeness and madness"13 is a very hard one to draw.

To define is to set limits.14 While other endeavors encourage creativity in word use, the law does not. Though e.e. cummings (a format which would be recognized by none of the Bluebook, the Maroonbook, the Greenbook, or ALWD15) might write of the "pale club of the wind"16 and Ben Okri of "an eternal smile of riddles,"17 we do not encourage radically new word use in the law. Consider the meaning invested in the word "mother" by Saddam Hussein when he spoke of the "mother of all battles"18 (now a fairly common use of the word). …

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