Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1916

Georgetown Law Library’s online collection of digitized dictionaries supports a wide range of research and scholarship involving the meaning of a word or phrase contemporaneous with a specific text, as well as the development of the meanings of words and phrases over time.

The interpretive uses of dictionaries as authoritative sources are on the rise within the legal profession, academia, government, and the courts. This increasing relevance of dictionaries is related to the increasing influence of the interpretive methods of originalism and textualism. Originalist interpretation rests on a foundational assumption that the original intent and meaning of constitutional, statutory and treaty texts is of paramount importance. The corollary of this assumption is that the best means of discerning such original intent and meaning is through a dictionary contemporaneous with the text being adjudicated. As a separate mode of interpretation, textualist theory holds that all one needs to interpret any legal text is the text itself and a dictionary.

Although there are many ways of either countering or supporting these and other interpretive methods, they can all benefit from Georgetown Law Library's online collection of digitized dictionaries – Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1916. Although by no means yet complete, this resource is already supporting a wide range of research and scholarship involving the meaning of a word or phrase contemporaneous with a specific text, as well as the development of the meanings of words and phrases over time.

Additional Reading

Stephen Breyer, Active Liberty: Interpreting a Democratic Constitution (2008).

Kent Greenawalt, Legal interpretation: perspectives from other disciplines and private texts (2010).

Antonin Scalia & Bryan Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012).

Samuel A. Thumma & Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier, The Lexicon Has Become a Fortress: The United States Supreme Court's Use of Dictionaries, 47 Buff. L. Rev. 227 (1999).

___________, Scaling the Lexicon Fortress: The United States Supreme Court's Use of Dictionaries in the Twenty-First Century, 94 Marq. L. Rev. 77 (2010-2011).

Ellen P. Aprill, The Law of the Word: Dictionary Shopping in the Supreme Court, 30 Ariz. St. L.J. 275 (1998).

Contacts

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