Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Of Solecisms and SNOOTs

Solecisms and SNOOTs
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps

O, they have liv’d long on the alms-basket of words.

Love's Labor's Lost (v.1.38-39)

It is so interesting how a person such as myself, who lives partially in another century, learns of things.
This week I was teaching a class for which the students and I read transcripts of interviews conducted in 2006-2007 with eight of the nine Justices then sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States. These interviews were conducted by legal writing and usage guru, Bryan Garner. One thing that struck me upon re-reading these interviews is how spoiled these folks are. Most of the legal writing that their job requires they read represents the pinnacle of the genre; briefs at that level—at least merits briefs submitted after the SCOTUS has decided to grant a writ of certiorari, aka picked a winning lottery ticket—tend to be clear, thorough, carefully organized, thematic, and meticulously scrubbed of style and grammar errors. And since the SCOTUS has granted cert, odds are also high that the issues involved are compelling and have obvious ramifications for society writ large. I fear that most of the legal writing I read cannot be similarly characterized. Even those trial court briefs and research memos that are well crafted, and these are hardly in the majority, often involve fights over, or analyses of, issues that would strike most of the world as painfully pedantic.
When the Justices were asked in these interviews to provide writing advice, some of them focused on matters that reveal just how rarified their circumstances are. For instance, in his interview, Justice Scalia devoted considerable time to inventorying particular words or phrases that drive him crazy. Some of the constructions that irk him are errors or, as he puts it, indications of “illiteracy,” like missing apostrophes. Some that give him heartburn, however, mystify me. For instance, “nexus.” Apparently, he hates the word “nexus” and sees it as a “pretentious” effort to suggest something “scientific” when the word “connection” would do nicely, thank you very much. I happen to like the word “nexus” myself—although I recognize that I, like Scalia, like all kinds of words that are not exactly common currency. Therefore, my liking a particular word does not necessarily make it a good choice to employ in legal writing. But I do not see “nexus” as one of those SNOOT sesquipedalian words that, like “sesquipedalian” itself, exposes you as a pompous ass if you drop it into a brief or casual conversation for no good reason. “Nexus” is not exactly inaccessible. Also, it has a nice, clipped sound to it—zippier than the plodding and decidedly generic and occasionally too New-Agey “connection.”
More understandable than Justice Scalia’s dislike of “nexus” was Justice Kennedy’s irritation with what he describes as “trendy” formulations. I understood him to be referring to neologisms or phrases that become hot in academic or business circles and thus get bandied about so much they can end up being a substitute for real communication. Kennedy uses the word “incentivize” as an example. I think of phrases such as “deals with problematic issues” or “requires thinking outside of the box.”
Only people who spend most of their time wading through the best legal writing that the profession has to offer, though, could think that the biggest problem with lawyers’ writing is their reliance on words like “nexus” and saying “cite to” instead of “cite.”
Now to loop back to my initial observation—about the uncanny accidents that can lead a person to surprising epiphanies.
I was not familiar with the term “SNOOT” before seeing Scalia use it in his Garner interview. Perhaps the term itself is a kind of litmus test; and perhaps Scalia, while talking to a fellow SNOOT like Garner, knew and liked it that only other true SNOOTs could appreciate his allusion.
Although the allusion was lost on me, one of my super-bright and remarkably non-snooty students clued me in later. “SNOOT” is an acronym proffered by the late David Foster Wallace in a stunning[1] essay Harper’s published in 2001: “Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage.” The essay had escaped my attention until said student, who was probably a pre-teen when it was published, sent it to me the other day. Interestingly, the essay purports to review Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. (See all these connections?? Could there be a secret SNOOT cabal???) But Wallace’s essay is so much more than a mere review. The essay is really about the profound tension between two core components of American culture: traditionalism and egalitarianism. The SNOOTs, as you can imagine, are largely traditionalists. At least when it comes to language, they deplore any and all solecisms (i.e., grammatical improprieties) and see themselves holding the line with their erudite vocabulary against the marauding ignoramuses blithely destabilizing English at every turn. Wallace admits to being a SNOOT, even though he’d decided to forego the bowtie generally worn by members of the club. He also explains that, in his family, SNOOT stood for either “Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time”—depending on whether you were a SNOOT or not. 
Reading this essay really got me thinking. The content, as well as (1) Wallace’s subsequent suicide after losing his long-standing battle against depression and (2) the title of his 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest, being an allusion to a line from Hamlet, led me to speculate about the nexus among lawyers, SNOOTs, and Shakespeare. Working through all the associations and hypotheses now exploding in my head will take some time, however. Therefore, I intend to devote a while to exploring this terrain. Meanwhile, I offer these tentative reflections:
  • Most lawyers are not SNOOTs, but many SNOOTs go to law school.
  • The same tension between SNOOT and anti-SNOOT values that Wallace describes among lexicographers is now coming to a head in the legal academy.
  • Although I am not a SNOOT, I suffer from manifest SNOOT-envy.
  • Shakespeare was not a SNOOT, but hardly romanticized illiteracy.
To be continued . . . . (Only a SNOOT would know if putting a space before starting that ellipses is correct.)

[1] I say “stunning” because of the amalgam of erudition, high and low wit, confession, and energy apparent in this essay about an exceedingly complex and “SNOOTy” topic. Besides, since Wallace was rather fond of the phenomenon, I felt a footnote in a blog post was an apt tribute.

1 comment:

  1. I saw your post this morning. Lo and behold, my environmental and natural resources reading includes the following in a Scalia decision: "The first [theory], inelegantly styled 'ecosystem nexus'... Respondents' other theories are called, alas, the 'animal nexus' approach.. and the 'vocational nexus' approach." Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife 504 US 555.

    He really does hate the word...