Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Unintended meanings

As I am applying my mind, such as it is, to legal writing, another matter crosses it: the use of words to mean something other than their correct meaning. However, the word that causes me to embark on this particular rant (and, note, I don't think I am embarking on anything here, in the strict sense of the word, or strictu sensu as lawyers used to say, thus giving the lie to their reputation for verbosity, because I am not boarding a ship) has already acquired a wider meaning than it originally had. As has "embark".

I read in The Lawyer that Oxford Brookes University has discontinued its legal practice course. It has left part-time students feeling anxious half-way to qualifying (half-way being, in this context, nowhere) although no doubt the Solicitors Regulation Authority will ensure they get to complete their course somehow. It is the latest of a bunch of institutions that have done likewise, facing a decline in the number of people wanting to become solicitors. That in itself is an interesting trend. The main reason this resonates, as they say, with me is that I used to teach there back in the days when the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice was a joint venture between Brookes and Oxford University. Then it was based in a city-centre office block, intended to replicate the atmosphere of a solicitors' office (it never seemed very successful in that aim, I must say): latterly it moved to Headington Hill Hall, part of the Brookes estate, formerly and notoriously a council house in the occupation of one Robert Maxwell.

Anyway, that's one LPC fewer, but on the same web page up pops an advertisement offering an LPC course at a "prestigious" law school. It turns out to be one that, to my mind, is a prestige-free zone, but leaving academic snobbery aside, I was amused at the idea that a law school might be proficient at conjuring tricks. I am however a bit too late to laugh about that one, because "prestigious" has lost that meaning and acquired the one the university in question had in mind. So my reference books tell me. However, the noun form "prestige" comes from the same Latin source (and incidentally has become an adjective too along the way - "prestige car", for example), where I had assumed without thinking about it much that the two words had quite different etymologies.

It is not, however, such a big change, I realised. From a conjuring trick to an illusion or impression of glamour is a short step, and the meanings are surely appropriate for a former polytechnic now entitled to call itself a university. There is, however, a serious point here, and it has taken me a long time to get to it: as professional wordsmiths, lawyers need to be alert to nuances of meaning. It is not possible to prevent the development of language, and indeed it is hardly desirable either. It is not the job of lawyers to hinder that process, but it is their job to achieve clarity in their work and to avoid ambiguity, and often that will mean we have to eschew the neoligism or changeling (can I use the word in this context? Provided the meaning is clear, I think so). "Prestigious" has undergone the big change and could probably be used safely, though I can't see why it might ever be necessary in legal writing, but other words do not have a sufficiently precise definition.

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