Giving it some humpty
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
The new year brings a new letter from one of my more regular freeman on the land correspondents. In an exciting addition to the woo theory for 2012, this one is headed “All words and phrases carry the meaning that I intend.”
I assume that my correspondent’s intention is to counter my annoying habit of insisting on a standard English interpretation of words when parsing his increasingly bizarre despatches from planet woo. He can now answer every objection by saying, “Ah, but that’s not what I meant.”
Perhaps, like so much of freeman theory, this is based on a vague conception of how lawyers use language. When we write contracts, we agree that certain words and phrases will carry a special meaning for the purpose of that specific contract, which may or may not correlate to the natural meaning of those words.
But those special definitions are, of course, a mutual agreement between both parties to the contract. Defined words are capitalised, and the corresponding definitions are set out clearly (one hopes) in the contract itself, so that readers who were not involved in the drafting and negotiation can understand what is intended.
Perhaps the freeman thought process is, “Lawyers can decide what words mean, and therefore so can I.” Thus the freeman might believe that objections to their, er, unique approach to meaning (like the ‘berth’ = ‘birth’ bobbins) can be sidestepped altogether.
But I do wonder where this leaves the freeman claims that their theory represents the true law of the land. (Which land? Any land, apparently).
After all, if anyone can choose what meaning their words bear, and isn’t obliged to disclose that meaning to their interlocutors, how is any consistent application of law possible? On what basis would a court, even if constituted in accordance with the common law as conceived by the freemen, adjudicate between competing claims?
Such a system of law would have a certain entertainment value, I suppose. And the alternative explanation, that the statement is just an expedient and slightly desperate attempt defeat any counter-argument that creditors might put forward, surely can’t be true, can it?