Recently, the film version of The Giver was released in theaters. In preparation for the movie, a group of friends and I (re)read a childhood classic. The book follows a community who’s government had taken away all of their choices – from food, to spouses, to careers, to children. The regulation of every part of life was seen as a protection to community members. The book highlights the importance of choice while reminding us that we cannot truly appreciate pleasure without the searing memory of pain.
The part that struck me was that a fundamental part of the community’s education system was “language precision.” Children would be punished for using the wrong word. The main character remembers when he mistakenly told his teacher he was “starving.” She harshly corrected him; he was not starving nor would he ever know what starvation was. The appropriate word, she insisted, was hungry.
While in law school we retain our freedom of choice, using precise language is essential. From the terror of a cold call in which a professor corrects your answer to receiving an LRW assignment with circled words (synonyms of the “correct” word might I add), language precision is stressed in our education. Rightly so. As legal professionals we will be forced to argue or decide the meaning of a single word. And the interpretation of that word could have extraordinary consequences for your client or our entire society. It can also provide casebooks that are a little more entertaining. For example, in Contracts class last fall we read a case that opened with the burning question, “what is a chicken?” Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp., 190 F.Supp. 116 (S.D.N.Y. 1960). While this case, as far as I know, only affected the parties to the suit it demonstrates the importance of language precision in our profession. Both parties assumed that they, (a.) knew what a chicken was, and (b.) it was so obvious there was no reason to define it in the contract.
So as we begin another year, I encourage my fellow law students – especially the 1Ls – to learn how to talk like a lawyer. Which means selectively choosing the correct vocabulary. Unlike the utopian community in The Giver we will not swat you in the back of the legs or consider “releasing” you for incorrectly using a word. But when we join the professional world, that precision is key. We might as well master that skill now.