THE TURN OF A PHRASE
Monday, March 14, 2022
The practice of law for the last half century has afforded me opportunities for lifelong learning. Some opportunities were positive and some were negative; some were humorous some were sad, but the learning never stopped. Since lawyerly skills require communication skills, the opportunity to incorporate what one has learned with rich and engaging expressions enhances lawyerly communication. The clever turn of a phrase can enhance conversation and relationships.
On the lighter side of the communication arts, I have collected everyday expressions whose origins have both enlightened and entertained. The other day in conversation, I used the expression "knock on wood," or as our Canadian friends would say "touch wood." Its origins are of course a splinter away from accuracy, but the best I can determine it the expression stems from medieval England when the Druids and Celts believed that mischievous but often helpful spirits lived in the trees. They would knock on the trees to awaken the spirits for a good turn. Another is the phrase "happy as a clam." This idiom has been shortened from "happy as a clam in high water," a New England expression that comes from the observations that clams in high water are better protected from aerial predators. The expression has been used by many, but apparently it was a favorite of Robert E. Lee.
Expressions from my wife's home state of Oklahoma are of particular interest and opened the door for me to learn "dirtball," a local dialect/language, rich in non-obvious meaning. "Big hat no cattle," is an expression often used to describe a braggard or someone whose ego exceeds their wherewithal. Another is "he/she is not worth the bullet," which is an observation about someone you think is useless or not worth the time of day or cost of a bullet. One of my favorites is the preamble "bless his/her heart;" a phrase which is used to soften a criticism about someone. Lastly the use of the word "shot" to describe a quantity of liquor is a fun one. On the western frontier when currency was in short supply or whose value was questioned, one could stroll into a bar and place a bullet on the bar in exchange for a glass of whiskey. This could be the first documented use of crypto currency. There are many more juicy expressions, which for modesty I have not included.
An example of an impactful turn of phrase was learned in law school: "Justice delayed is justice denied." This phrase was probably originated by William Gladstone — a distinguished English jurist in 1853. It was slightly altered by Martin Luther King Jr. one hundred years later when, sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama jail, he wrote in a letter, "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
Which brings me to the point I would like you to consider. The American justice system is or should be a function of government of the highest integrity. The justice system must work to earn citizenry's willingness to support the government. It is my contention that our judicial system both at the state level and federal level is broken and, if it hasn't already, will soon turn the citizenry away from a sound judiciary's important role. Often the frustration is based on the extraordinary delay in non-criminal dispute resolution. There are myriad reasons for the current state of the judiciary including the lack of financial investment in the judicial system (which should timely and effectively serve the peoples' needs), the effect Covid has had on the judicial systems and the politicization of judicial appointments. The civil justice system and the immigration system are so backlogged that it is hard to see how they will ever be caught up. The US Supreme Court is so backlogged that it resorts to the procedural "shadow docket" — judgments without reasoned decisions. We have an immigration system which cannot keep pace with cases legally brought for an immigration determination let alone deal with the folks stacked at the border. At the state level here in Colorado we have a Supreme Court which cannot manage its own administrative affairs with integrity. The system needs further investment and an increase in the number of judges.
Quaint expressions and certain phrases bring a richness to communication, but they often convey an important message.
If you have the time I would love to collect and learn of your favorite expressions, phrases, and colloquialisms.