A Slubby Mass of Words
Warning: legalese ahead
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock,” where we focus on words, a quirk of history or literature, or something just plain fun. Make sure you don’t miss a single issue.
“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” — Charles Lamb, c. 1825
At the end of the week, with April Fool’s Day landing squarely on Friday, I couldn’t escape the inexorable wave of humor, hectored upon me with all the nuance and affability for which the internet is known presently.
Did I say “humor”?
It was more like a series of bad jokes. Or awkward pranks.
April Fool’s Day
frequently never disappoints.
However, one exchange on Twitter led me to think about humor in legal terminology.
As King Arthur said to Sir Lancelot, “Surely, you joust.”
But I kid you not.
And don’t call me Shirley.
Legalese is a recognized language. It could most broadly be considered the jargon of the legal profession: terminology that is useful to and recognized by lawyers.
I was having a conversation with my friend Kerry Gorgone (a trained lawyer) about the seven-hour and 37-minute gap in White House call logs from January 6, 2021.
She mentioned this concept:
“Adverse Inference: If the trier of fact finds a party guilty of spoliation, it is authorized to presume or infer that the missing evidence reflected unfavorably on the spoliator’s interest.”
I wasn’t struck by the legal aspect of it (because quite simply, it’s common sense), but rather by the word spoliation.
That’s “the destruction, alteration, or mutilation of evidence especially by a party for whom the evidence is damaging.”
Isn’t that a great word?
As someone who enjoys writing and a good pun or turn of phrase, my mind wandered back to what is probably the most recognized punny headline in the history of The New York Post (a rag that is notorious for its salacious slinging of superscripts):
If more Americans were familiar with the legal term “spoliation” these days (is there a time when we ever were so erudite?), the Post might have run a story about the 7 1/2 hour gap in the White House call logs with this headline:
I crack me up.
As this seems to be a Law & Order theme today, I couldn’t conclude without a nod to an offbeat and niche publication to which I subscribe called The Green Bag.
It is self-described as “an entertaining journal of law,” and while it is not a humor publication, it does make certain legal issues readable and does have a bit of humor woven throughout.
One of the side benefits for Green Bag subscribers: since 2003, it has been producing bobblehead dolls of Supreme Court justices past and present.
A Slubby Mass of Words
Since we’re focused on legal terminology, the article “Courtroom Humor” by the Honorable Stanley Mosk caught my eye.
Judge Mosk seems to have been a jurist who appreciated the arcane and erudite. In fact, his words could have been written for “Off the Clock”:
“A judicial aspect that appeals to me — unusual though not strictly meant to be humorous — are opinions of judges that employ phrases or words not in common use. A Ninth Circuit judge has earned a reputation for his requirement that readers of his opinions keep a dictionary at their elbow. How about writing of a party’s “aduncous claim”?
Or declaring federal sentencing guidelines that “generate inspissate brumes”? An inadequate brief has been described as a “slubby mass of words.” In short, Judge Ferdinand Fernandez tries to wipe away “some of the fuliginous overlay” in earlier authorities and to clear up the darkness, that is, tenebrific. The distinguished judge is well known for his literary acumen. Generally his opinions are understandably received with a certain amount of awe.”
Perhaps you’d like to be received with a certain amount of awe from your colleagues.
If that’s the case, you could consider employing abstruse terminology occasionally. Not for lexiphanic purposes, but to keep your peers on the qui vive.
Please note, this is merely a suggestion; please act sua sponte.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Spoliation, Merriam-Webster, retrieved April 1, 2022
“The real story of ‘Headless Body In Topless Bar,’ as argued by veterans of the Post,” January 27, 2012 (Politico)
“Courtroom Humor” by Honorable Stanley Mosk, The Green Bag, Autumn, 1998 (Vol. 2, No. 1)