November 18, 2008

"Romanette," the word Chief Justice Roberts didn't know.

The lawyer had to explain it to him, which is charming, I think, and what a thrill for her. (She's Nicole A. Saharsky, Assistant to the Solicitor General.) Eugene Volokh writes that he'd never heard of the word either, couldn't find it in any dictionary or anywhere in Nexis.
So what's going on? The word is in no dictionary that I could find. It appears in no Nexis-searchable publication. A Google search for "Romanette" in English-language pages revealed fewer than 35 pages that used the word before Monday, once all the false positives (the names of people, horses, green bean varieties, blinds, and the like) were removed.
Did Eugene personally while away the hours extracting horses and green beans? Ah, but it was worth it:
And yet the word, with precisely the meaning Ms. Saharasky used, appears in six court opinions, from federal court in Oklahoma, bankruptcy courts in Texas and Pennsylvania, and state courts in Minnesota, plus ten sources in Westlaw's TP-ALL database (all in practitioner journals, not in traditional law reviews). And the Google hits — mostly from legal documents — come from a similarly wide range of sources: the minutes of a Novato, California City Council meeting, a manual of contract drafting, a transcript of an Idaho Senate commitee meeting, and more. What's more, all but a few use the word as matter-of-factly as Ms. Saharasky did, without any indication that the word is anything novel and unusual; the remaining ones are queries about what the word means or brief discussions of its meaning.
What's interesting is the way the people who say it evince a belief that the word is in common usage, when so many people don't know it. (By the way, there should be a word for the sense that something is ordinary and understood when it's really quite strange.)

Eugene wants to know how this could have happened:
Did ["Romanette"] arise at some particular law school, or in some law firm, or among users of some particular drafting manuals, and thus seem common to people who have been exposed to it but unknown to others? Or am I mistaken in my conjecture, and the users of the word like it so much — or think it's so good for showing off — that they use it even though they know many listeners don't understand it?
I like the idea that it was the coinage of some particular lawprof, who infected his students, and the infection never went pandemic. (I tried to do that with a word long ago.)

From the comments chez Volokh, I'm getting the impression that "Romanette" is a word used by transactional lawyers and alien to litigators. A shibboleth. Up until now, that is.

26 comments:

chickenlittle said...

I first heard the term a few years back from a Yale law grad. Perhaps it originated there.

KLDAVIS said...

It's a perfectly cromulent word.

I find it funny that Althouse doesn't define the word. I get the impression from a quick glance at the google hits that it's related to lower-case Roman numerals (i.e. If you're taking notes or making an outline I.,A.,iii. Then, iii is a Romanette.) If that's the case, it makes perfect sense to me.

Original George said...

Intellectual dokhmas like this only serve as obexes between the renardy cisvestitists and the neanthropic clamjamfry.

Donna B. said...

Yes, original george, that is exactly what I was going to say.

misterarthur said...

re: (By the way, there should be a word for the sense that something is ordinary and understood when it's really quite strange.)...there probably is one. I'd ask Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the O.E.D.

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Hardcover)
by Ammon Shea (Author)

Hoosier Daddy said...

What's interesting is the way the people who say it act evince a belief that the word is in common usage, when so many people don't know it.

I think it's called being a snob. Except when you use a word like niggardly then you're just being a racist.

shake-and-bake said...

I think those who draft legislation use the term all the time. At least, they are the only ones I have heard use it, and they do so with great familiarity.

Bob R said...

What is unusual is that this is a very useful word for speaking but almost useless when written down. So it's one of the few modern examples of an oral tradition among literate people that wasn't transmitted in print. There must be others in other professions, but I can't think of any in mine.

And it highlights two groups of lawyers that never talk to each other. Very cool.

halojones-fan said...

It's obvious that Chief Justice Roberts is TOTALLY UNQUALIFIED for the job of Chief Justice. I mean, he should KNOW these words RIGHT AWAY, just like "Bush Doctrine"!

Josh said...

It's common in legislative circles where you spend a lot of time reading, negotiating, and drafting bills. Volokh had so much trouble tracking it down on Google because it exists mostly in our oral vocabulary. That is, in conversation you might say "what about Romanette four?" while in print you'd simply write "what about (iv)?"

J said...

"By the way, there should be a word for the sense that something is ordinary and understood when it's really quite strange"


There is - vorshtein.

mjsharon said...

Wow. It's a word I've heard in transactional lawyering circles for years and years. Any corporate lawyer at any reasonably sized law firm would know it I think.

holdfast said...

You would almost never write it down, because you would either refer to "Section 2(a)(ii)" or "clause (ii)", but while sitting around a conference table negotiating a credit agreement, you would say "ok, please look at the changes in romanette three". If you just said "section three" it could be section 3, section III or section (iii) - can't tell the difference from hearing it.

It is definitely a term used when drafting, marking up or negotiating a document in collaboration with others - but there's no real reason to write it down. I guess this separates the working lawyers from the academics.

RR Ryan said...

Doesn't arcane cover it.

Daniel said...

I'm delighted to have learned a new word for a concept otherwise difficult to describe. The fact that the word is not universally known even among those to whom it would be most useful really doesn't surprise me that much.

In the original quote, Saharsky defines it for Roberts, who appears to accept the definition without any negative connotations toward her or himself. Just like grown-ups.

Is there supposed to be a big deal here?

SteveR said...

Now I am going to spend a lot of time waiting to drop that into a conversation to impress people. I'm not going to live that long.

Christy said...

It's a great word. I would have found it very useful back in the days when I was reviewing and commenting on regulations, frequently in committees, and producing protocols.

And, hey, romanette is Latinesque without being the Latin we expect lawyers to sling about. How cute is that?

Robert said...

I was going to guess that this is a regionalism (hopefully I just made up that word). I remember use of "Romanette" during high school in Milwaukee, just before I asked permission to use the bubbler.

Trooper York said...

In the Fifties the gang on Eight Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park was called the Romans. And the girl’s auxiliary was called the Romanettes. They had big hair and poodle skirts and angora sweaters and smoked lots of cigarettes.

If you had to find a Romanette you only had to look under the hood.

In the back seat.

Rue Des Quatre Vents said...

You write: "there should be a word for the sense that something is ordinary and understood when it's really quite strange."

Mooreeffoc: relating to familiar things suddenly seen in a new and different way. What's the etymology of this wonderful word?

Though this word is rare to the point of never being used in its ostensible sense, but only as a keyword to initiate discussion, it has been keeping illustrious company, since its few appearances in print have been in works by G K Chesterton, J R R Tolkien and Charles Dickens.
Dickens invented it, if that’s the right word to use. He mentions it in his autobiography, when he describes his poverty-stricken youth:
"In the door there was an oval glass plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie,) a shock goes through my blood."
In his biography of Dickens, Chesterton said that it denoted the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. Tolkien read more into it still in his work On Fairy-stories:
"The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits."

Simon said...

I can't believe that no one has yet asked what the word Althouse tried to introduce was. So it falls to me: which word did you try to infect your students with?

veni vidi vici said...

"I tried to do that with a word long ago."

Let me guess: was it "Fetch", as in "That sweater is soo fetch!"?

rhhardin said...

It's sexist.

You'd expect a stamping of tiny foot over it.

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Simon said...

The Chief has learned to use "romanette"! That's so darned cute.

Dena Page, M.Ed., CBA said...

I'm transcribing a legal document and heard the word, had to confirm it online. As I was guessing how to spell it, I immediately suspected it was a "little Roman", or lower case Roman letter, and was delighted to discover this recent blog post on the word. What a useful word! Wonder how close it came to being a Romanina.