April 22, 2004

"Reticulated"? That's reticulatus! Justice Scalia conspicuously used the word "reticulated" in the oral argument yesterday. Let's examine this. Now, we know Scalia cares a lot about text in legal interpretations, and he seems generally to have an interest in language and etymology. So when he comes out with an unusual word like that, we should do more than laugh and think "That's ridiculous" or nod and think "He's really smart."

He asked, as I noted yesterday, whether the Supreme Court ought to be in the business of "draw[ing] up this reticulated system to preserve our military from intervention by the courts."

To the Dictionary. And if you've read his opinions, you know he likes to cite dictionaries. Let's look up "reticulate" in the American Heritage Dictionary:
ADJECTIVE:Resembling or forming a net or network: reticulate veins of a leaf.

VERB: Inflected forms: re·tic·u·lat·ed, re·tic·u·lat·ing, re·tic·u·lates (-lt)

TRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To make a net or network of. 2. To mark with lines resembling a network.

INTRANSITIVE VERB: To form a net or network.

ETYMOLOGY: Latin reticulatus, from reticulum, diminutive of rete, net.

re·ticu·late·ly —ADVERB
re·ticu·lation —NOUN
First, a tiny point. "Reticulate" is already an adjective, so he could have simply said "this reticulate system." But a good number of listeners would have heard that as "this ridiculous system"--it would even have gone into transcripts and print articles in that form.

But here's the real question: why use a big word that a lot of people don't know? I can think of a number of reasons: to try to appear learned, to exclude the uneducated, to be funny, to achieve an aesthetic effect, and to attain precision that can't be attained with more common words. The first two reasons are almost never justified.

How about the comedic use? Polysyllabic humor has it's place--picture W.C. Fields calling a nose a proboscis--and it actually was pretty funny. Would it be inappropriate for Justice Scalia to have been funny in the middle of an argument about the Guantanamo detainees? Justice is serious business. I think mild humor was justified in this context, which was to emphasize the ineptitude of judges in this area. The word might have been used to draw a cartoon in our heads of a judge with an overinflated opinion of his own powers, drawing all the wrong lines in an area of great importance.

How about the aesthetic use for choosing an unusual word? One might pick a different word for rhythm or alliteration. (For example, if you wanted to refer to some people who were nattering, you might want to call them nabobs.) But quite aside from the poetics of the sound of a word, there may be aesthetic appeal to saying something in an unusual way. If nothing else, it may be striking and memorable. The statement Scalia made that contained the word "reticulated" stuck a memory marker in your head. I actually don't think I will ever forget it!

The best reason for using an unusual word is that it has a precise meaning that is what you really want to say, and no simpler words do what is needed. (The weird word won't work, however, if listeners don't understand it.) Here, we need to ask, does "reticulated" mean what Scalia wanted to say, and was there really no other word that means that? I think he meant to say something like "detailed, delicate, and nuanced." But "reticulated" means having lines on it in the pattern of a net. Most people who know the word "reticulated," I would hazard to guess, know it because they've heard of the reticulated giraffe. So is the legal framework the judges would have to draw up similar to the a pattern of lines on a giraffe? I'd say the pattern of lines on a giraffe is rather regular and easy to map out once you get started. The etymological root of "reticulated" is the Latin word for "net." A net pattern can be graphed, so a judge tasked with drawing a legal framework in a "reticulated" form really could rely on abstract reasoning neatly within the judicial capacity. Therefore, "reticulated" is surely not an odd word justified by its unique, precise meaning. It isn't even the right word at all.

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