Sunday, April 1, 2012

Misdemeanant v Misdemeanie or, better, Misdemien

Speakers of legalese are generally fairly avid worders.  While they don't do much in the way of verbing (generally the most common manner for coining new usages), they absolutely love overextending the application of prefixes and suffixes—three of the most common being -ant, -ee, and -or.  This is where we get words like the common “granto” and “grantee,” the less common and significantly uglier “mortgagee” and “mortgagor,” and, among the worst, “misdemeanant,” the epitome of inartful legalese, employing an impressively articulate and accurate suffix, at the total expense of poetic expression.  Not that this last has any rightful place in the law; imagine how much worse (or better!?) the U.S. Code would be if the Legislature were poets (though I think there's a contrary argument there, though definitely for another time).

So what if, really, on the other hand, a little freedom of expression were employed—creativity moderately restrained by accuracy of intent and con-/denotation—by those on the hill?  Intent is where it's at, anyway, right?  For, after all, both textualists and purposivists alike (no matter what the staunch representatives of either caste may claim) are dominantly easily swayed in their statutory interpretations by the clear intent of language by those who spoke and wrote it.  In all actuality, I think this is where the scriveners (scribblers) of the law get it wrong!  I mean, come on!  How much sense does misdemeanant really make?  (Remind me sometime to post a list of the worst of single-word legalese.)

I think what the legal coiners should actually do, and in all sincerity, rather than hyper-extend prefixes and suffixes to the point of straining their roots to near meaninglessness (see what I did there?), should employ the very Carrollian portmanteau: a strategic combination of two words, rather than the rote equation of prefix + root + suffix = x, to make a new word, which, when effectively employed, can ascribe additional or tangential meaning, which flexibility, really, is at the very heart of the English language anyway (yeah, I am fully aware how dangerous this could be in the practice where legalese is used—and (*shudder*) in the hands of those who use it – but how much more fun!).  

So take a look at these (etymology taken directly from the most excellent

misdemeanor:  also misdemeanour, “legal class of indictable offenses,” late 15c.; from mis- (1) “wrong” + M.E. demenure (see demeanor). Related: Misdemeanors; misdemeanours.

-ant:  agent or instrumental suffix, from O.Fr. and Fr. -ant, from L. -antem, acc. of -ans, prp. suffix of many Latin verbs.

meanie: also meany, “cruel person,” 1927, from mean (adj.) + -y (3).

mien:  “facial expression,” 1510s, shortening of M.E. demean “bearing, demeanor” (see demeanor); infl. by M.Fr. mine “appearance, facial expression,” possibly of Celtic origin (cf. Bret. min “beak, muzzle, nose,” Ir. men “mouth”).

The combinations, I think, are obvious (as designated in the title, above).  “Misdemeanie,” is fairly sophomoric, but how excellent, especially considering the apropos circularity of origin, is “misdemien”? Huh!?  Right!?  Is such flagrant potential for inaccuracy of usage dangerous?  Sure.  But the law would be so much more fun!

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