U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has co-authored another book with Bryan Garner, Editor in Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, that was recently released with the title: Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. The publisher is Thomson/West. This is not a book review, though a book that compiles the canons of construction for legal documents and statutes will likely be of interest to most lawyers. My purpose in this short post is to call attention to Appendix A of the book, which is entitled A Note on the Use of Dictionaries. In sum, this epilogue of sorts to the book highlights the risk that judges, lawyers, and any user of dictionaries may be exposing themselves to if they are not more alert to the wide range of quality among dictionaries.

Specifically the authors of this new book argue that some dictionaries are not worth quoting. On page 423 they provide a helpful list of English dictionaries that are worth quoting for the meaning of words for different periods of time through the present. A separate list for law dictionaries is also provided. It should force one to double-check the dictionary one usually reaches for. An example the book offers of the need to closely examine the introduction to the dictionary one uses is the following: not all dictionaries list the “main” or current meaning of a word first. Some dictionaries list the oldest or original meaning first, which is often not the current and most widely used meaning. They also provide the example of a court that used an outdated and “low quality” dictionary for the meaning of a relatively common word, which did not reflect the current and most accurate meaning of the term. Among the English language dictionaries they recommend for the most reliable definitions for the period from 2001 to the present are:

The Oxford English Dictionary (online edition)

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

The New Oxford American Dictionary

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Webster’s New World College Dictionary

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage

Garner’s Modern American Usage