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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Linguistics of Certiorari Dismissal

Like many colleges, my undergraduate institution did not offer a pre-law major.  So those of us who knew we wanted to go to law school had to find some other discipline as a major.  I chose linguistics.  I had lived abroad as a child, which made me interested in how other languages worked.  And I liked the introductory linguistics courses more than I liked the introductory English and history courses that I took.

Much to my surprise, I’ve found the little linguistics that I learned in college has been useful later in life.  The linguistics “school” that my thesis advisor belonged to sought to discern patterns in written and spoken language.  These patterns were not the grammatical rules we memorize in junior high, but instead a complex web of intuitive rules that sometimes carry with them various meanings.  For example, baseball aficionados say that a batter “flied out,” rather than saying that he “flew out.”  Linguists interpret this deviation as an indication that the terms “fly ball” and “to fly out” have taken on their own independent meanings aside from the constituent words that were used to form them originally.

So imagine, to my delight, when I recently had a conversation about how to create the past tense of the common Supreme Court term “DIG.”  The Supreme Court will sometimes, after granting certiorari in a case, decide that there is some reason that the Court should not decide the case after all.  The Justices will dismiss the case as improvidently granted --- hence the acronym “DIG.”  So how does someone use that acronym to indicate that a case had been dismissed on those grounds in the past?  Happily, there is a law review article which gives us the answer (look at footnote 4).  Rather than using the term “dug,” the Supreme Court Justices apparently use the term “digged” in spoke language, and scholars use the written form “DIGged.”  Made my day . . .

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on April 28, 2015 at 12:26 PM | Permalink


Life's small pleasures, I guess.

Posted by: andy | Apr 28, 2015 9:21:21 PM

Carissa: Fascinating discovery! Thanks for sharing!

WG: My understanding is that the understood vs. grandstanded conundrum may be resolved by looking at the origin of the words. Understand is the compound version of the verb "to stand" and, as such, it inherits all the simple verb's morphology--irregular past tense included.

The verb grandstand derives from the noun "grandstand" so there is no reason it should have an irregular past tense.

Posted by: CJR | Apr 28, 2015 9:09:55 PM

A similar effect happens when a common word becomes part of a compound: Toronto Maple Leafs, not Toronto Maple Leaves.

A puzzler is why we have understand/understood but grandstand/grandstanded (not grandstood).

Posted by: WG | Apr 28, 2015 6:50:08 PM

In soccer (or, in the rest of the world, football), a player who launches a curving shot has "bended" the ball. As in, "she bended it like Beckham." This reinforces the "flied out" theory, which I believe originated with Steven Pinker.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Apr 28, 2015 5:44:44 PM

Yes, interesting. Carissa, did you notice that in this context the word is an auto-antonym?

Posted by: "Jack" | Apr 28, 2015 4:02:45 PM

Interesting, Carissa. I would think this is the natural way to modify an initialism that happens to sound like a prior but unrelated word. You treat the initialism as its own new word, not the prior but unrelated word.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 28, 2015 1:46:16 PM

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