Above The Law Interviews Black’s Law Dictionary Editor

Worth a summer squizz…



Black’s Law Dictionary: An Interview with Bryan A. Garner

Bryan A. Garner
This May, Thomson Reuters published the tenth edition of the estimable Black’s Law Dictionary (affiliate link). The most widely cited legal book in the world, Black’s is a must-have for every lawyer and law student.

Henry Campbell Black published the first edition in 1891. Starting with the publication of the seventh edition in 1995, Black’s has been edited by Professor Bryan A. Garner, the noted lexicographer, legal-writing expert, and author of such books as Garner’s Modern American Usage, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (the last two co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia (affiliate links)).

I met with Garner during his recent visit to New York, where he taught his famous legal-writing course to various law firms and government employers. His voice was hoarse from a summer cold, but he generously soldiered through an interview with the help of some tea. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

ATL: Congratulations on the publication of the tenth edition of Black’s Law Dictionary!

Thanks. It’s a book that my colleagues and I poured our heart and soul into. People don’t think of dictionaries as being written, but they are, and it’s a painstaking process.

ATL: What is new about the tenth edition of Black’s?

It’s the most ambitious law dictionary ever undertaken. It has just over 2,000 pages and 7,500 new entries. Every page has new entries.

ATL: Can you tell us about the process of putting together this edition?

It’s a continual process for me. I’m always working on Black’s, with a huge “to do” list of thousands of entries to write. It’s a question of triage — which entries got written for this edition and which ones I held back for the next edition. I tried to get the best and most important ones into this edition.

I’m constantly reading legal literature to find new terms. Once we find candidates, my staff and I work them up. We do word-frequency searches. A word has to be used repeatedly by multiple authors to make the cut. Your neologisms [i.e., those coined by David Lat] — benchslap, judicial diva, litigatrix — were successful.

Sometimes a word gets reinvented. It’s not even a revival because the neologist didn’t know about the original meaning of the word.

ATL: That happened to me with litigatrix. I learned from the Black’s entry that it was first used in 1771 and historically referred to “a female litigant.”


ATL: What types of sources do you consult when conducting word-frequency searches?

We look at Google. We use Westlaw — the caselaw databases, the law-review databases, and ALLNEWS — a very important database that collects news sources. It includes a lot of usages you might not find in scholarship.

ATL: How has the digital age changed the way you go about your work?

It greatly eases and speeds up the research. Google Books is very useful. Google in general is very useful.

For this edition of Black’s, we have dated the first use of each term in the English language, a huge improvement. Fred Shapiro of Yale, the librarian and lexicographer, led this effort. That would have been impossible before the digital age.

In terms of citing sources, I am rather stubbornly print-oriented. Even though I helped The Chicago Manual of Style (affiliate link) come up with systems for citing websites, I continue to be conservative in terms of focusing on published books as sources.

The kind of scholarship that I do cannot be done exclusively in the computer room. You need to be reading in the field. You need to be talking to lawyers. Are you familiar with the SODDI defense?

ATL: No — how do you spell that?

S-O-D-D-I. It stands for “Some Other Dude Did It.” Someone brought up this term when I was teaching legal writing to public defenders about ten years ago. I had about 75 public defenders in front of me, so I asked them, “How many of you are familiar with this term?” Nearly all the hands went up — so that went into the dictionary. If 60 out of 75 public defenders know a term, that’s all I need.

ATL: So once you’ve identified a new term and established that it’s used widely enough for inclusion, who writes the entry?

I write the vast majority of entries personally. I might ask the person who suggested SODDI defense to me to draft a definition, a crude one from a lexicographer’s point of view, which I can then reword. My associate editors — Karolyne Garner, Tiger Jackson, Becky McDaniel, and Jeff Newman — also do first drafts of definitions.

By the time we start working in earnest, I’ve built up several thousand terms. I will divvy up the list among the editors. We’re each expected to draft ten definitions in an hour. That’s the only way to get a first draft done. It involves checking a lot of different sources, print and electronic, and comparing different sources against each other.

Then each entry goes through a vetting process. If Tiger drafts an entry, for example, then Jeff will re-research it. Most people would find it unbelievable — the level of editing, revisions, and fact-checking that we go through. We do that repeatedly. An entry might go through as many as ten drafts. We might send an entry out to a law professor or other expert for review.

And then I review everything a final time before it goes into the dictionary. It’s got to be very clean.

Black’s Law Dictionary: Deluxe Tenth Edition
ATL: So the ninth edition of Black’s came out in 2009. How do you decide when it’s time for a new edition? It is every five years?

You can infer what you will about the publishing cycle, but we won’t do a new edition without significant change — a minimum of 15% new material.

Earlier editions presented greater challenges. When I took over the editorship of Black’s in 1995, I did so with the stipulation that I’d have free editorial hand to do whatever I wanted with the definitions. I’m a stickler for wording and phrasing, and I was unhappy with how a lot of the existing definitions were written. Many were clumsy or inaccurate.

For the seventh edition, my first edition as editor of Black’s, I had to radically rework many definitions. I knew that a lot of the Latin entries were shaky, for example. So I had experts — Tony Honoré of Oxford, Joseph Spaniol, the late David Walker of Glasgow University — re-translate all the Latin. They said that some of the entries made no sense, and I cut them.

There were hundreds of little errors in the sixth edition and earlier editions. Some of these errors were very subtle — for example, perhaps the typesetter misread the handwriting of Henry Campbell Black.

ATL: What type of feedback have you received for your work on Black’s?

Mostly positive — expressions of gratitude and admiration. I sometimes get e-mails from people who say they’re shocked that I omitted this word or that word. I’m very grateful for them; they sometimes result in new entries. Occasionally I’ll get a letter that’s ill-tempered, but I haven’t gotten any yet for this latest edition.

If someone wants to know why I deleted the definition for hotel in the seventh edition, that’s because it didn’t need to be defined in a law dictionary. Almost every word that I cut from Black’s is a nonlegal term. Prior editions included definitions for nonlegal terms like hotel or Boston cream pie (seriously) simply because these terms appeared in caselaw as a result of litigation.

ATL: Do you cut terms if they are no longer current?

No. Lawyers are historians. Any term that a law student might encounter in an old case — the original meaning of litigatrix, say — needs to be in the book. Nobody uses litigatrix in the old sense today, but Black’s has a very important historical purpose.

ATL: Some people I’ve heard from have expressed offense at including certain terms in the dictionary — like benchslap, a pun based on the offensive bitchslap. When editing Black’s, where do you strike the balance between descriptive or prescriptive?

Some linguists find it difficult to believe that the same person wrote Modern American Usage and Black’s Law Dictionary. But I’m wearing totally different hats when working on the two books.

Of course, every dictionary is a little prescriptive. The editors of Merriam-Webster insist on spelling sherbet with “b-e-t” at the end, even though many people would spell it sherbert. So there is some element of prescriptiveness in a dictionary.

I tend to be descriptive when working on Black’s. I’m not going to omit a word because some people find it offensive. This has come up with Merriam-Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary; Robert Burchfield, editor of the OED, wrote an essay about the issue. If you’re a historical lexicographer, you can’t pretend that certain words aren’t there.

One of the major desktop dictionaries deleted the n-word, the most offensive word in the English language. Your approach will depend on what you think the role of a lexicographer is. If you’re supplying dictionaries for a grade school, it’s understandable that you’d cut out some nasty words or four-letter words. One of my earliest memories, from seventh grade, was looking up nasty words and finding them in Webster’s Third.

ATL: Speaking of the desktop dictionaries, do you have any favorites?

There are five really good, current desktop dictionaries: Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate, Webster’s New World, American Heritage, Random House, and the New Oxford American Dictionary.

ATL: Your co-author, Jusice Scalia, has some strong opinions on certain desktop dictionaries….

My co-author does not like Webster’s Third. I like it fine, as long as the user knows how to discount some of the stuff in it. It’s an amazing piece of work. But better for law is Webster’s Second, which is more historically in-depth on legal and specialist terminology.

ATL: Justice Scalia is one of the greatest judicial writers on the bench today. Who are some of your other favorites?

Chief Justice Roberts. Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. On the circuit courts, Judges Easterbrook, Kozinski, Boudin, and Gorsuch.

ATL: Speaking of Judge Kozinski, any comment on why you didn’t include his very useful dissental, short for “dissent from denial of rehearing en banc,” in the latest edition of Black’s?

I believe it was too new and not used by enough different authors at the time we considered it. But expect to see it in the eleventh edition of Black’s Law Dictionary.

ATL: We look forward to it. Congratulations again on publication of the tenth edition, and thanks for taking the time to chat!

(Disclosure: Thomson Reuters, an ATL advertiser, sent me a free copy of Black’s Law Dictionary so that I could look at it prior to my interview with Garner.)

Black’s Law Dictionary [Amazon (affiliate link)]
The tortuous tale behind the 10th edition of the most widely cited lawbook in the world [ABA Journal]
Bryan Garner Discusses the Latest Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary [Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites]