The Justices Learn a New Word.

Language is a many-splendored thing, and we should applaud those who explore its farther reaches in search of the most descriptive, interesting, or ear-pleasing variations to use in their speaking and writing. But sometimes, esoteric language is used to obscure and exclude rather that to enlighten and illuminate.

Though I'm not much of a fan of Chief Justice John Roberts, I have to give him credit for something he did in court yesterday, calling attention to the scourge that is "orthogonal":

Supreme Court justices deal in words, and they are always on the lookout for new ones.

University of Michigan law professor Richard D. Friedman discovered that Monday when he answered a question from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, but added that it was "entirely orthogonal" to the argument he was making in Briscoe v. Virginia.

Friedman attempted to move on, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stopped him.

"I'm sorry," Roberts said. "Entirely what?"

"Orthogonal," Friedman repeated, and then defined the word: "Right angle. Unrelated. Irrelevant."

"Oh," Roberts replied.

Friedman again tried to continue, but he had caught the interest of Justice Antonin Scalia, who considers himself the court's wordsmith. Scalia recently criticized a lawyer for using "choate" to mean the opposite of "inchoate," a word that has created a debate in the dictionary world.

"What was that adjective?" Scalia asked Monday. "I liked that."

"Orthogonal," Friedman said.

"Orthogonal," Roberts said.

"Orthogonal," Scalia said. "Ooh."

Friedman seemed to start to regret the whole thing, saying the use of the word was "a bit of professorship creeping in, I suppose," but Scalia was happy.

"I think we should use that in the opinion," he said.

"Or the dissent," added Roberts, who in this case was in rare disagreement with Scalia.

First off, you have to give credit to Roberts for bringing it up at all. Most of us, when we hear somebody use a word we aren't familiar with, will keep our mouths shut rather than expose our ignorance by asking what it means. But Roberts has enough confidence in his own vocabulary to assume that if he didn't know this word, it must be some piece of obscurantist gobbledy-gook. And that is certainly true.

I don't know about law professors, but political scientists are unusually fond of "orthogonal." Many of them use it not when they literally mean "at right angles to," but just when they mean "unrelated." Why? It's symptomatic of the larger problem with academic writing, which is that in its forms and mores it is meant to glaze the eyes of anyone who hasn't been initiated into its particular vernacular. It is intended to convey depth and profundity, without necessarily having any. You could also call it "bad writing." There is some good academic writing out there, to be sure, but in lots of disciplines, good writing is looked upon with the same skepticism that good teaching is – if you're good at it, your colleagues may take it as evidence that you don't really have the substantive chops.

If there's an upside to this story, it's this: Maybe now that "orthogonal" will start popping up in Supreme Court decisions, it will gain wider use, and become a word lots of people understand and anyone feels comfortable using, instead of the mark of pomposity it is now (no offense to Professor Friedman).

--Paul Waldman

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