Monday, December 19, 2005

Stretching The Parameters (Yikes) of Language

"Sounds like!" I said . . . screamed . . . that’s what I said, but what I did is . . . scream. Maybe shriek is what I did. Whatever. (Strike "whatever.") So I shrieked, no I think "shouted" is better. I shouted, "parameter is not the same as perimeter!" They pulled my hands off the neck of the research attorney who had written, "Within the parameters of our standard of review." Luckily she didn’t fight back. I hate words that come from disciplines I cannot understand even if my life depends on it.
Dictionaries do not agree on the meaning of "parameter" . . . I think. Webster's Third New International Dictionary offers this illuminating definition: "The relative intercept made by a plane on a crystallographic axis, the ratio of the intercepts determining the position of the plane." If that isn't clear, try the Random House Dictionary of English, 2nd edition that explains that "parameter" is "A constant or variable form in a function that determines the specific form of the function, but not its general nature as in f(x)=ax, where a determines only the slope of the line described by f(x)."
In a measured voice I told the research attorney, "Parameter" is for mathematicians, (or some related field) not judges . . . or their research attorneys. You used "parameter" because it sounds like "perimeter."
She momentarily stopped massaging her neck with lotion and coolly delivered this riposte. "Current usage allows for a broader use of the word. It is quite acceptable in educated circles to use ‘parameter’ to mean ‘boundary’ or ‘guideline.’"
Maybe so, but not in my circle. Granted, that language and usage changes; it is unseemly for a word to acquire a new meaning because it sounds like another word. The period of transition can wreck havoc. Take for example what happened to the transformation of the word "evacuate" in my neighborhood newspaper. A front page headline told of an "armed old man bandit" who robbed a local bank. Put aside for a moment whether a bank can be robbed, and that I was incensed to read that the suspect’s age is somewhere between 50 and 60-- just call me Methuselah. No one whose age falls in the decade between 50 and 60 is old. Got it?
Sorry. I got a little hot, and off track. To get back to my point. The article describes the aged robber as victimizing "multiple tellers" at various local banks over the past several months. Come to think of it, he could have victimized various tellers at multiple banks. But anyway just last August the elderly bandit "robbed" Washington Mutual. He entered the bank with a gun and threatened to detonate a device that looked like a pipe bomb. The article then states, and I quote, "The employees were ejaculated" and "the area sealed off." Some employees asked the robber when he would call again. Others lit a cigarette. Jay Leno thought the robbery had occurred at a sperm bank.
Language is indeterminate. Even when the right word is used, meaning suffers if the speaker fails to clarify the context. To be understood we must be precise. At a neighborhood restaurant I ordered soup and stressed that I wanted my soup "hot." The soup came lukewarm, but so peppery I had to drink four glasses of ice water. I like my soup hot in temperature, not spicy.
A reporter friend of mine once interviewed the winner of a beauty queen pagent. She asked the interviewee how it felt being the new reigning queen of an artichoke festival. The queen gazed at the interviewer and with a beatific smile, her teeth gleaming in harmony with the zirconium crown on her head said, . . . wait, first let’s see what the reporter wrote in the paper. The beauty queen said, "I feel odd." The next day the outraged beauty queen called to complain that she had been misquoted. How did the beauty queen feel? She felt "awed," perhaps an odd way to express the overpowering emotion at being crowned queen of anything, especially artichokes.
What we write in opinions, statements of decision, briefs and motions may have a profound effect on the outcome and the direction and shape of the law. "Sol rented the store." Was Sol the lessor or the lessee? The context might explain whether Sol was collecting or paying rent, but the sentence standing alone doesn’t tell us.
Many years ago I began an opinion with this sentence. "Sometimes a defendant’s rights fall between the cracks. Here they fell in the Grand Canyon." Luckily I caught the error before the opinion was published. My comparison between a crack, as a crack in the floor, and that enormous crack in the earth known as the Grand Canyon was a failed metaphor. If the defendant’s rights fell between the cracks in the floor, then his rights were preserved because they did not fall in the cracks, just the opposite message I wished to convey. Through harmless oversight, rights of a defendant that fall in the cracks could well be non-prejudicial. But rights that fall in the Grand Canyon might even get a reversal from Justice Thomas.
But it is easy to be hard on those who make an offhanded remark that on reflection sounds ridiculous. This brings me to a list of quotes my friend Dr. Joyce Weisel Barth recently sent me via e-mail. The quotes seemingly sound foolish. I say "seemingly" because despite my obdurate position on "parameter," I have tried to tease a plausible meaning from the speaker's words. Unlike staffers at the New Yorker Magazine who gleefully expose solecisms, non sequiturs, misplaced modifiers and malapropisms that pop up in various publications throughout the country, I will be more forgiving, unless they misuse "parameter." My willingness to so extend myself stems from the likelihood that sooner or later, my name will be among those who have been held up to ridicule. Samuel Goldwyn, Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra, make room.
Take this quote attributed to Philadelphia Phillies manager, Danny Ozark. "Half this game is ninety percent mental." Maybe the math works. If Ozark is speaking about the first half of the game, then 10 percent is brawn or luck. But what of the second half of the game? The second half could also be 90 percent mental, but after a player has spent so much of his mental energy during the first half, the second half could be 20 percent mental and 80 percent whatever. (Strike "whatever.") In fact, my research attorney, Peter Cooney believes that half the game could be ninety percent mental and 100% physical. He is right, and he never uses the word "parameter."
Here’s a quote attributed to Marion Barry when he was Mayor of Washington D.C. "Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country." Petty theft is down 300 percent.
Dan Quayle has taken his share of hits. I think it’s unfair that he is mocked for favoring California. He is reputed to have said: "I love California. I practically grew up in Phoenix." No wonder he loves California. And besides, it’s a great place to eat a potatoe.
Joe Theisman, NFL quarterback and sports news analyst tells us "The word ‘genius’ is not applicable in football. Genius is a guy like Norman Einstein." I would add Norman to the list that includes Rudolph Newton, Jasper Mozart, Morton Freud, and Jimmie Picasso.
Al Gore once warned: "We are ready for an unforeseen event that may or may not occur." It would take someone like Norman Einstein to discover an event that may not occur.
The Department of Social Services of Greenville, North Carolina sends this cheery notice to the moribund. "Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances." Even this message is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Note this reply. " I wish to reapply for food stamps. Sincerely yours, Lazarus."
When Mark Fowler was FCC chairman he offered these encouraging words to patients using a heart monitor. "If someone has a bad heart, they can plug this jack in at night as they go to bed and it will monitor their heart throughout the night. And the next morning when they wake up dead there will be a record." The manufacturer is working on a jack that monitors the heart without killing the patient.
It would also be salutary if we do not kill the language. But we must allow it to grow and change within flexible parameters, I mean boundaries. Whatever.