Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ultraquistic Subterfuge: High class, first class, law class

I'm guessing that with photos of cats and birdfeeders, recipes for chicken dishes, and boot lace diatribes, some of you are wondering if I'm actually still going to school and learning things. Let me assure you that I am.

For example, this week, I learned that that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Right Honourable Beverly McLachlin, wrote this when she was a justice on the British Columbia Court of Appeal:

McLachlin C.J. Not the biggest advocate for equality perhaps, but she writes a clear rule usuallyIt may well be that generally discrimination cannot be justified in a free and democratic society. But it is not true that it can never be justified. Circumstances may arise where discriminatory measures can be justified. For example, in times of war, the internment of enemy aliens might be argued to be justifiable under s. 1 [of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms], notwithstanding the fact that this is discriminatory and would not be tolerated in peace time. [Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia (1986) 27 D.L.R. (4th) 600 (B.C.C.A.)]

I wonder if she ever found herself at a social function or somewhere chatting with David Suzuki. I suspect he has thoughts on wartime internment that differ from hers.

Anyway, I know academic speculation is not what you want from me. You want legal tidbits that you can apply in your daily life. Therefore this week, from my Legal Drafting class, I bring you one of the ways that ambiguity can arise in a text:

Ultraquistic subterfuge -- equivocal repetition of a word

Ultraquistic subterfuge occurs when a writer uses a word to mean one thing in a sentence and then uses the same word to mean something different. Whether this is a problem will depend on the reader and the context.

Look at "sentence" in this example: "In the final sentence of her judgment, she gave the foreign-born Canadian an internment sentence." Most readers will take the first "sentence" to mean a string of words and the second "sentence" to mean a prison term. If we turn that example around: "She gave the foreign-born Canadian an internment sentence in the final sentence of her judgment," it becomes much less clear if the "internment sentence" was the last string of words in the judgment or was the last prison term mentioned.

Exercise: find or create demonstrations of ultraquistic subterfuge. Prizes may be awarded for particularly subtle or clever examples.


JuliaR said...

Okay, I looked it up and it’s not in Wikipedia nor even, in fact, under Google generally except for a single hit on a Japanese site (WTF?) which brought up a book on legal writing. I even checked my venerable Black’s and it’s not in there. Which makes me think we should come up with a term to use for terms like “ultraquistic subterfuge” such as “bombastic bull” or even “res ipsa loquitur”. On the other hand, I do love words and this term is busy trying to charm me in spite of myself.

David Scrimshaw said...

To be fair to the legal profession, for which a "bombastic bull" term is definitely needed, Professor Ruth Sullivan attributes "ultraquistic subterfuge" to "linguists and philosophers" in her course material.

Knowing Professor Sullivan a little bit, I suspect that she used it only because it's a fun pair of words.

JuliaR said...

The photographer failed to compensate for the strong light, so there was no definition in the highlights of the picture of the building that was the very definition of Gothic.

Conrad H. Roth said...

The term is a nonce-word coined by Ogden and Richards in their seminal 1920 work on semantics, 'The Meaning of Meaning'. Other subterfuges are the Phonetic subterfuge (treating a word like other words which sound similar to it) and the Hypostatic subterfuge (treating a polysemous abstract like it has one meaning, eg. liberty). The word 'ultraquistic' never really caught on, as you can see.

David Scrimshaw said...

Thank you for playing! Nice touch using "definition" in an example of ultraquistic subterfuge.

Conrad, I'm especially grateful for your contribution. I'd begun to wonder if Prof. Sullivan had made it up. I'm not sure that it's a nonce word (a word coined and used only for a particular occasion) or even a hapax legomenon (a word or phrase found only once in some specified body of language) [definitions] because now Prof. Sullivan and I have started using the term and the coiners probably intended that others would also adopt ultraquistic subterfuge (as a term, not a practice).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, a fair distinction which hadn't occurred to me. Though I think the term also reflects a touch of whimsy in the work, which quotes Melmoth the Wanderer, Baudelaire and other oddities.