American Speech 77.4 (2002) 344-357
I had the distinct privilege of knowing Fred Cassidy during the last 40 years of his life. In 1962, with my then-recent Ph.D. in English linguistics from Case Western Reserve University, I had the audacity to send him one of the only five carbon copies of my doctoral dissertation on the dialects of northern Illinois, mentored by Raven I. McDavid, Jr. (this was, of course, long before photocopying was common). His response was, as always, encouraging and helpful. Three years later, I conducted a summer workshop for secondary teachers of English at Michigan State University and invited Cassidy to give a series of lectures on dictionaries and language change. His talks were, as one might expect, brilliant and very positively received. At that point we began a 35-year correspondence, ending only with his death. His influence on my career was tremendous, even though I soon left the study of dialectology per se and spent most of my life first doing sociolinguistics, then forensic linguistics. Today, as I consult with attorneys on civil and criminal law cases, his teaching is still a force in my life, as the following attests.
Many lawyers, judges, and juries are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to dictionaries. They seem to think that if you quote the dictionary, you've established whatever authority you need. The notion that "the dictionary" stands for all dictionaries is still as pervasive as it was when this authoritarian attitude was pointed out in Robertson (1954, 344) some 50 years ago:
This paper describes some of the problems that the legal community faces in using dictionaries at trial, including the problems of their authoritativeness, of their selective use, of the necessary incompleteness of their entries, of phantom definitions, and of the inequality of the dictionaries themselves. Not surprisingly, these were some of the same points that Cassidy made to my high school English teachers in 1965.
Just what authority does a dictionary really have? In trademark infringement cases, the courts sometimes rely on dictionaries. Curiously, however, the courts also give evidence of assigning authority to themselves alone, since the authority of the field of law seems to rank even higher than that of "the" dictionary. Inconsistency in just how authoritative dictionaries are considered by different courts is documented by Robinson (1982). Landau (1989, 298-302) observes that lawyers and lexicographers are in a constant conflict that grows out of their respective differences in task and goal. Even when dictionaries disclaim any responsibility for affecting the trademark status of entries, such disclaimers can be of little avail. When a trademark is used by the general public as though it were a generic word, the dictionary makers are obliged to record that usage. Otherwise, the reading public would be deprived of knowledge of how the language is used by the public. Some trademark owners object to such reporting of actual usage, however scientifically gathered or accurate it may be, claiming that a generic use of their trademark, including a figurative use cited in a dictionary, violates trademark law. If lexicographers still deign to pursue their primary obligation to report actual usage, they risk receiving threatening letters from counsel for the trademark owner that suggest the possibility of a trademark infringement case. So the authority of lexicography comes face to face with the authority of law.
When one examines current commonly used and respected dictionaries, one can find evidence that the law actually has control over at least some language policy. The most recent editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed., 1993) and The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2000), for example, contain the entry Band-Aid, capitalized, noted as a trademark...