Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Languages...

English and Legalese, while related, are not the same language.

There has been some discussion about the charge of "use of a weapon of mass destruction" against the surviving Brother Kablamazov.

In this case, it is a term of art and is defined in the U.S. Code.

Laws are about things and/or actions. In order to legislate against a thing or action, you must first define exactly what the thing or action is that you wish to legislate against. This is why the copy of Indiana Criminal Code at my elbow contains definitions of everything from "store" ("a place of business where property or service with respect to property is displayed, rented, sold, or offered for sale") to "sexually violent predator defendant" (see IC 35-33-8-3.5(b))
(Note that these are Indiana's definitions, and "store" might mean something completely different in your state of residence or to the federal government.)

This is how, just to give some examples, for the purposes of a law, a piece of sheet metal the size of your pinkie nail is a "machine gun", an aluminum forging with holes broached in it is a "firearm", and a semiautomatic rifle is an "assault weapon".


Anonymous said...

I remember reading an article, I think on Reason, a year or two back about how the WMD term of art was expanded to include pipe bombs and various other types of attacks.

According to this article, which I haven't been able to find again, the bill that changed the definition was passed really quickly right after Saddam was captured, while everyone's attention was on that particular news story.

Tam said...

The law is written like it is to make sure that random bombings are federal crimes, even if you bomb is a really small and cheesy one. Incompetent terrorists need fed love, too.

Like Ken at Popehat, I am sure that agents of my government would NEVER misapply it in a fit of zealousness against someone who didn't really... OUCH! Thorry, my thongue jutht poked righth through my cheek.

RandyGC said...

Then you have Militarese, where "WMD" is term of art going back at least to the 80's, basically being a replacement buzzword for "ABC" (Atomic, Biological and Chemical) and NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical).

In that world you could stack enough H6 or Tritonal filled bombs, or ANFO for that matter to fill Wrigley field and it would still not count as a WMD.

Such differences have at times made coordination between .mil and .gov much more problematic than such minor differences as working with, say, the ROK on language and cultural issues.

mikee said...

Many years ago I took chips of dry ice off the bubbling lump in the "smoking" Halloween cauldron on my front porch, closed them up in empty 2 liter soda bottles, tossed said bottles in my yard in the dark, and watched the excitement as they exploded LOUDLY but harmlessly 50 feet from the kids Trick-or-Treating.

While I hope statute of limitations has expired, is this really a felony misuse of a WMD?

Tam said...


What do you think?

Graybeard said...

Remember that for three years it was the law of the land (BATFE decision) that a shoelace was a machine gun. Reference Then they had the sense (shock!) to say the shoelace had to be used with a semiautomatic rifle.

It seems the only use for such laws is to have more to charge someone with, hoping at least something sticks.

Tam said...


A specific shoelace. It even had a number.

You are trying to think about this like an engineer, and it's not an engineering problem. You can't plug [ "ability" + "intent" / "intent" = ] and expect it to spit out 3.141...

...and more's the pity, too.

Aesop said...

Anyone who's ever been subjected to Aunt Maisie's rhubarb casserole, or eaten USGI green eggs & ham out of an aluminum vat field mess can, has no trouble seeing how a pressure cooker can be considered a WMD.

Old NFO said...

Tam, you've hit multiple nails square on the head with this one. It's ALWAYS about writing legalese generically enough to drive three semis abreast through it just to make sure they can 'catch' whomever they want in the net... Even if that particular net hasn't been invented yet...

lelnet said...

I can't decide whether to be sad about living in a world where the word "store" requires an explicit definition in the statute books, or relieved about living in a state that, given said requirement, at least used a definition that matches pretty well with the common English meaning of the word "store".

DanH said...

Legalese is only related to English in the same manner that decoys and ducks are related. They look just enough like the real thing to get you into trouble.

J.R.Shirley said...

A grenade is, according to the US military, a small arms weapon, while according to US law, it's a weapon of mass destruction.

Stranger said...

Remember that definitions within a law are inserted by staff so the cretins voting the Partei line can leave plenty of loopholes for Partei bundlers. Something Congress abandoned with Pelosi's "we will have to pass it to find out what's in it."

Which is, at bottom, as reasonable as ATF's decision to label legal Sport Utility Rifles as "machine guns." Complete with an M-16 icon.


Jess said...

English is a concise, complete method for communication.

Legalize, is a tangled pile of braided horse crap mistaken for relevancy.

staghounds said...

Better we should have less definitions, then, right? Laws that prohobit driving "too fast", or doing things that are "violent", or a tax code that you have to pay your "fair share".


Tyranny loves vague laws.

Tam said...

I am all in favor of precise definitions; they are required for anything even remotely resembling the "Rule of Law" to occur.

rick said...

My favorite line from wkrp in cincinnati -

"We are not talking about the truth here. We are talking about the law!"

Ian Argent said...

And then you have the vulgate bibles, according to the medieval Catholic church, weapons of Mass destruction.

Stuart the Viking said...

So, lemme git this strait.

Two doofus' (doofii?) pack the fun powder they extracted from fireworks into a pressure cooker and it's a WMD.

BUT, Bush lied when he said that Iraq had WMDs.

Well thank dog the Iraquis never thought of using firework fun powder with pressure cookers for all those IEDs over there or some of our guys might have gotten hurt.

Sounds like someone is being very selective with there definitions.


Tam said...


That's not how it works.

Kristophr said...

Jess: legaleze is the way that it is because it allows folks that speak it to know exactly how a particular law or a particular contract is going to be interpreted by a competent judge.

It's jargon. Very precise jargon.

Geodkyt said...

Jess --

The problem is words mean stuff, but when your average word in English has multiple (sometimes contradictory) meanings, and even words with uncontested "general" meanings are interpreted differenlt (albeit equally validly) by differing informed users,* which meaning applies to the statute?

In fact, the same term often means different things in different statutes. Which is why the opening section in each chunk of code is full of definitions specific to THAT code section - and why "firearm" means one thing in Title I (GCA) and another in Title II (NFA).

* For example, the technical terms "warning and disabling fire" and "prosecuting the target" have very different meanings to a group of Coast Guard officers and a group of Navy Surface Warfare officers. Thats why the terms are carefully defined in each organization's documentation.

Sigivald said...

Stuart the Viking said: Two doofus' (doofii?) pack the fun powder they extracted from fireworks into a pressure cooker and it's a WMD.

BUT, Bush lied when he said that Iraq had WMDs.

Problem: Different contexts. Terms of art are (axiomatically) not universal.

"Weapon of Mass Destruction" in the one context is unrelated in meaning to the other context.

This simply isn't a big deal.

(Honestly, my big complaint with their formulation of "Bush lied" is that he never god-damn lied.

Oh, he was dead wrong, but even the (Democrat-run and this not ass-covering for him) Robb-Silberman Commission couldn't pin a lie on him, because everything he said on the subject was based on real intel from the CIA and our allies.

"Being Wrong" and "Lying" aren't the same thing...)

Windy Wilson said...

Without precision in language, however hard that is to define (sorry) and achieve, we are at the mercy of a law based on "I know it when I see it," which is like being raised by a bipolar mother (Is this ok to do today?).
As for ambiguity in language, there is a joke running around on the internet about what "Secure the building" means to each of the various branches of the US Armed Forces (The Air Force will lease a building, The Navy will lock all the doors and windows, and the Marines will kill everyone inside, blow out all the windows and post a guard until the Army can arrive).