This morning I had a discussion with my five-year-old granddaughter about believing in things. She believes in Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and Rapunzel. I explained why no human could have 14-foot-long hair like Rapunzel, not even the Sikhs who never cut their hair. As for Santa Claus, I told her I had never believed in him, except for fun. She was comfortable believing differently from me: “Some people believe in things, and some don’t,” she said.
She mentioned that she was afraid of “monsters,” and I asked her what she meant by that word. She brought up bats and walking mummies. As for the mummies, we agreed that they exist, but they don’t walk, so they are not worth worrying about. Regarding bats, her fear was based on the fact that “We can’t see them,” although I could inform her that if she were in the right place at the right time, she could indeed see bats. It is important for all of us, not only children, to clarify what we believe in and to investigate what we are afraid of. We made some progress through semantics this morning.
The Supreme Court will shortly rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, which requires a definition of the word “marriage,” including whether the addition of the word “gay” to a standard definition redefines or simply clarifies the institution itself.
Dennis Baron has reviewed the Supreme Court’s use of dictionaries on his blog The Web of Language, including an instance when a liberal and a conservative Justice used the same dictionary definition to support opposing points of view. He also references the definition of “militia,” which drove decisions having to do with the right to bear arms.
I wish we would all agree on the definition of the term “Founding Fathers,” because this term leads directly into the word “Constitution” which is the bedrock of conservative judicial thinking these days. There were Unitarians and agnostics among the Founding Fathers who would not recognize opinions imposed upon them today when conservatives want to win a point by referencing them.
No matter what they do on the Supreme Court, we can keep a close eye on definitions in our daily lives.