Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dictionaries in the Irish Supreme Court

Apropos a recent article in the New York Times about the increasing citation to dictionaries by the U.S. Supreme Court, I did a quick search on Justis for the use of dictionaries in judgments issued by the Supreme Court of Ireland. There were 200 results (by way of comparison, the US Supreme Court "used dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions in the 10 years starting in October 2000") and the court used the dictionary to interpret the meaning of words ranging from "amicus curiae" to "cattle" to "advance" to "instalment" to "sum" to "produce." In addition to frequent citation to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Irish Supreme Court also referred to Murray's New English Dictionary, Stroud's Judicial Dictionary, and Tomlins-Jacobs Law Dictionary. I also observed that Justice Fennelly - who is one of the more frequent users of the dictionary - shows fine taste in favouring the OED!

Among the gems:
  • "The word, “ouncil” or “ouncel” is obscure. It does not appear in any dictionary even in the longest version of the Oxford Dictionary. Perhaps it is unique to Kilkenny. From context, it clearly means a weighing machine." (Justice Fennelly in Simmonds v Kilkenny County Borough & ors (2011)
  • "a slot machine is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a machine which is operated by the insertion of a coin in a slot" (Director of Public Prosecutions v. Cafolla (1994))
  • ...[crunch] has a very clear and specific meaning, whether we take it in its modern spelling of"crunch," a spelling which has been known for over a hundred years, or its older spelling, "craunch" which has a history of some 250 years. Whatever be the origin of the word, whether it be as suggested by some persons an onomatopoeic amalgamation of the words "crush" and"munch," or whether, as suggested by one learned lexicographer, it is an echoistic modification of the word "crush,"nevertheless, as the word "crunch," it is established in modern English usage with a clear, specific meaning, and the strongest evidence of that fact is the spontaneous exclamation of the workman on testing the result of the boiling, which he described as a "great crunch." (Fry-Cadbury (Ir.) Ltd. v. Synnott (1935)).