If you visit Dave Wilton’s wordorigins, you can explore the evolution of meaning for various words from A to Z. “Quiz”, for example, has gone from a noun describing an odd person to a verb about mocking or making fun to our contemporary verb of testing. This phenomenon — that the meaning of words do not stand still — is neither new nor surprising. Any parent of any teenager experiences it almost daily.
All of which should bring some humility to the raging controversy over judical activism, results-oriented judges and so-called legal originalists. “Law” itself has meant many things to many peoples over time. One constant, though, is this: the law is expressed in words.
If those words do not speak to us in our times, then the words are written in dead letters. This is reality. We cannot hope to govern ourselves if we do not have judges who understand both that words must mean something and that those meanings must relate to our lives as we live them today. The notion that, for example, the Constitution is as inert at stone is a sophistical sleight-of-hand. It is proposed by those who wish to bring their own meaning into our national conversation. Meanwhile, the opposite concept that the Constitution is a hyper-active, attention deficit riddled engine for social change is equally suspect.
Judges have jobs like the rest of us. Their unique responsibility lies in significant ways in the interpretation of words to fit both principles and our lives. That’s a hard job. But none of us advance either our undertanding or their performance by denying legal words the same standing we routinely grant to ‘quiz’ — or ‘hot’ or ‘right on’ or ‘cool’. So, let’s ‘get over it’.