Humpty Dumpty And The LawPosted: January 10, 2013
All lawyers have literary sources on which they rely for quotes to make a point in a brief. One of my favorite sources–which I admit I probably overuse–is Humpty Dumpty. Or perhaps I should say Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1872. Lawyers (and judges) trying to make a point about limits on the malleability of the English language often quote the following conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice:
I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
Just out of curiousity, I did a Westlaw search to learn how frequently this passage has been cited in published cases. As of today, it has been cited 119 times in the allstates database and 139 times in the allfeds database. Interestingly, even though Carroll published Through the Looking-Glass in 1872, the earliest citation in reported U.S. cases is 1942, in Liederman v. Indepenent Order Brith Shalom, 164 S.W.2d 614 (Mo.App. 1942). The earliest reported federal citation is Geophysical Development Corp. v. Coe, 78 F.Supp. 677 (D.C.D.C. 1944). The passage is also cited by the dissent in an important British case, Liversidge v. Anderson (1942).
I wonder why it took jurists so long to begin quoting Humpty Dumpty’s conversation with Alice. I offer one possible theory: The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll was published in 1939. See Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 174, 98 S.Ct. 2279, 2291 (1978).