Friday, 27 June 2008

Indefinite?

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

I've been looking at how "indefinite" is treated, especially regarding the headline in the Jersey Evening Post on Saturday -: "Now they can lock you up indefinitely." The States sitting recently covered this.

The full text is at http://www.statesassembly.gov.je/documents/hansard/22715-25297-2662008.htm, and I have yet to see a more shifty evasive performance by a politician who, it seems, does not have the grace to simply say "I got it wrong" but has to apologise not for herself, but over the way in which it entered the public domain.

Senator W. Kinnard (The Minister for Home Affairs) said:

I make this statement because of public and Members' concern following an article that appeared on the front page of the Jersey Evening Post on Saturday, 14th June, under the headline: "Now they can lock you up indefinitely." The report alleges that I had authorised the indefinite detention of suspects without charge under delegated powers and that I had not consulted with interested parties. The word "indefinite" means "not clearly defined or stated." In my view therefore, it is quite wrong to associate this with the law in Jersey on limits for detention and subsequent review.

This was picked up by Deputy R.G. Le Hérissier:

Would the Minister not accept 2 things; that the popular usage of "indefinite" is: "Lasting for an unknown and unstated length of time" and that to say "indefinite" is not indefinite is utterly confusing.

Senator W. Kinnard returned stating that the word "indefinite" must be interpreted in the way in which she stated because of the legal and procedural measures which the order must be consistent and fit in with:

First of all, the word "indefinite" does not fit with the actual situation, which is the long-stop of 96 days and, indeed, the situation where the police are required to bring people before the court promptly. I do not accept what is being asserted by the Deputy.

And yet, earlier, Mr. W.J. Bailhache Q.C., H.M. Attorney General, used the word "indefinite" in the other sense of the word because he is talking in terms of limits (or no limits):

The fact that there are no statutory limits to detention before charge does not mean that the police can detain a person indefinitely

In fact, indefinite, like many words, is slippery in meaning, having a broad semantic sweep. The Oxford English Dictionary gives several meanings to it, and two of the main ones are:

"Without distinct limitation of being or character; having no clearly defined or determined character: indeterminate, vague, undefined. "

"Of undetermined extent, amount, or number; unlimited. "

It is important to understand what dictionaries do - they do not dictate what the meaning of words are and should not be used in a prescriptive way. They collate the different meanings that have arisen over the years, and list common usage, together with some etymological notes.

Words may change meaning, and may pick up extra meanings over the years. Arguments over "real meanings" belong to the Victorian Age of prescriptive grammars, where verb infinitives could not be split because the model was Latin, where a split infinitive is impossible. Original meanings of words are not "real meanings" either - in Semantics, that is caused the genetic fallacy. They are important, because if looking back at old documents - and old laws - the words used may have changed significantly.

C.S. Lewis noted how the 1928 revision of the Prayer Book altered "may truly and impartially administer justice" to "may truly and indifferently minister justice". He asked his gardener, Paxtead as an experiment to see what an ordinary man thought. Paxstead answered that he knew well enough what it meant to minister justice indifferently: that was fairly, without making any difference between people. But as for impartially, "I don't know that word, guv'nor". Nowadays, the meaning of "indifferent" has changed significantly to mean more like unconcerned, incurious, aloof, detached, disinterested - we see this in headlines such as "Black juveniles face indifferent justice system", or "Murderous clients and indifferent justice".

It is ironic that one of the definitions of "indefinite" is "Unclear; vague". I wonder whether it is sensible for politicians to criticise the JEP, simply on the Humpty Dumpty approach of saying "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

Generally, they will slip between meanings, much as Richard Dawkins does in "The Selfish Gene", where he says he uses the word "selfish" as a technical term - "Selfish", when applied to genes, doesn't mean 'selfish' at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: "the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process." - and then comes out with tripe like this: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs", in which he mixes up his "technical term" with the common usage.

Reading the debate in the States over the use of the word "indefinite", it is clear that it is changing in meaning take place all the time, and Wendy Kinnard is using the imprecise meaning (and the JEP using it) as a shield against criticism against the crux of the matter, which wasn't the JEP use of "indefinite" but the wording of the order regarding continual reviews and detention, a point well picked up by Gerald Baudins -

"That all that does not alter the meaning of the Order because I would like the Minister to advise why her Order included the words: "and may conduct further reviews and authorise further periods as such detention" which is quite unambiguous and the crux of the matter because it clearly indicates a never-ending process. It is not a misinterpretation, Sir, as alleged by the Minister but I believe a failure on her part to create an Order that did what was allegedly intended. "

Senator S. Syvret later asked a very good point:

It would appear from what the Attorney General has said and what the Minister has said that this wording of the now removed Order is simply not compatible with and is in conflict with statutory legislation. Would the Minister not then accept that this is simply an unholy mess and she might have got more credit from this Assembly had she simply come here and admitted this is a mistake and an error rather than engage is this sophistry?


1 comment:

Krakow Crapaud said...

After 18 months in Krakow with only a few conversations with native speakers of English, that was tricky.

"I know bullshit(sophistry) when I hear it!", would do for me.

(:p