Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JUNE 2012
The Legal Writer
"G " is for Graft:
A Gaggle of Great "G" Words
By Suzanne E. Rowe

After my recent column on “Remarkable and Revealing “R” Words,” a reader asked whether I intended to do a whole alphabet series — just as Sue Grafton is writing an alphabet series of mysteries featuring detective Kinsey Millhone.

Let’s clear up a few points immediately. Not even one of these articles on legal writing will ever be translated into 26 languages, as Ms. Grafton’s books are. And I’ve already blown the nice order of A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar — because the first two letters I covered in earlier articles were “I” and “R.” Oops.

But with respect to Ms. Grafton and thanks to the reader, I will continue to meander through my favorite dictionary and share fascinating tidbits along the way. To honor my muse, I had two choices this month: “S is for Sue” or “G is for Graft.” While I prefer the first, my dictionary devotes 228 pages to “S” and just 79 to “G.” And the deadline is tomorrow. Let’s play with “G” words tonight.

Gaff, Gaffe, Gaffer
We start with a few words that have nothing to do with law, unless your client is a gaffer who pulled a gaffe in a gaff.

A gaffer is technically the head electrician in a movie or television production group. If you’re a fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you know that the term also is used informally to refer to an old man, like the father of Samwise Gamgee.

A gaffe (with an “e”) is a social goof, a blunder. It’s the embarrassing moment you’ll relive again and again while trying to go to sleep later that night.

Gaff comes with at least three definitions. The third definition of gaff in my dictionary is a house or apartment where someone lives. Another definition is “rough treatment” or “criticism,” as in “the office manager is in for a gaff for buying cheap coffee.” The first definition is the barbed spear that is used in catching large fish.

So back to the gaffer who pulled a gaffe in a gaff. The sentence could refer to a movie guy who happened to diss the lead actress just as she walked in the door of the flat in London where the cast party was being held. Delete one “e,” and it could mean that an old man grabbed a fishing spear and lunged for the actress. Hmmm, maybe then you’d have a plot for a new movie?

One reason I love my favorite dictionary is that it so often agrees with me (or I with it). After pointing out that get makes the Top Five list of common verbs in our fine language, it notes that some curmudgeons find get too common for formal documents. The problem is really that get too often replaces words that might be more precise. Compare “I get it” to “I understand it.” In the first, get could mean to physically pick the thing up or to understand a concept. In the second, the meaning is clear.

Got vs. Gotten
Both of these words are past participles of get, but their meanings differ. Gotsuggests ownership, as in “She’s got four apartment buildings that she leases,” or possession, as in “You’ve got mail.” On the other hand, gotten emphasizes the process of getting something (or not), for example, “He hasn’t gotten any new clients since his partner retired.”

We all know that a bunch of geese is called a gaggle. But the word applies more broadly to any group lacking order. Like a gaggle of paparazzi waiting for the starlet to emerge from the backstage door. Or like a bunch of great words beginning with “G” that I found in my dictionary.

We all know that this term — gerrymander — means to jiggle the boundary lines of a voting district to make sure your party’s candidate has an easier time being elected. Do you know where the term came from? Elbridge Gerry was a governor of Massachusetts who played this manipulative game. A voting district created while he was in office resembled a salamander. A Boston newspaper published a picture of the district with the new term “Gerry-mander.”

Lady Gaga
I just have to give you this definition of gaga straight up: “overexcited or irrational, typically as a result of infatuation or excessive enthusiasm; mentally confused; senile.” And the origin of gaga is a French word that is hospital slang for a person who wets the bed. I have no comment. (I actually like her.)

Think “annoying.” The literal meaning of gadfly is an insect (e.g., a fly) that bites poor livestock, certainly annoying them. The figurative meaning is just as annoying; it’s someone who “provokes others to action by criticism.” There’s redeeming value in each: the poor fly must eat to survive, and some of us need to be goaded into action.

Those of us who grew up with Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky (“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”) will be delighted to know that galumph is a real word now. It means to “move in a clumsy, ponderous or noisy manner.” Kind of like you would if you’d just slain the beast and were hauling its head back to your joyous father. You’d be galloping and feeling triumphant, but moving awkwardly — in other words, you’d be galumphing.

In the nonlegal world, to garnish means to decorate or embellish something like a tray of food, perhaps with a sprig of parsley or more interestingly with a drizzle of saffron-infused reduction of balsamic on sour dough croutons.

In the legal world, the verb has a harsher meaning. It’s all about seizing someone’s money to take care of a debt or an outstanding claim. Nothing saffron-infused about that.

Garrote and Garrulous
These are two words I encountered later in life and sometimes couldn’t easily define. Until now. To garrote is to strangle someone to death, perhaps with a wire or cord. (The noun garrote is the wire, cord, or other implement used in the dispatch.)

Garrulous is an adjective that describes one who talks excessively, especially on matters that no one else cares about. So if the garrulous soul keeps up the incessant chatter, another soul might use a garrote to garrote her to silence.

Throw Down the Gauntlet
The gauntlet was a medieval knight’s armored glove. If he threw it down, he was issuing a challenge. The person who picked it up accepted the challenge. Some of us — and our clients — just can’t resist a good challenge!

Gender vs. Sex
While gender and sex both address the male or female state of being, the words vary a bit. Gender refers to social and cultural differences; sex addresses biological differences.

Gourmet vs. Gourmand
Both of these terms—gourmet and gourmand—refer to a person who enjoys and understands food. But you don’t want to be the second because the gourmand usually overeats.

Good vs. Well
“I’m good.” That response has always made me wonder, especially when delivered by a friend who has been up to no good at all. Technically, “I’m well” refers to your health. While the informal “I’m good” means the same thing, it’s not quite as precise because it could mean either that you are in good health or that you’re feeling especially happy that day — perhaps because you’ve been deliciously bad.

My favorite dictionary has a wonderful example for keeping straight the adjective good and the adverb well: “she is a good swimmer who performs well in meets.”

Even curmudgeons like me admit that language develops over time. While technically graffiti is plural and graffito is singular, I’ve never heard the proper singular term used. Similarly, the words agenda, data and media are most often used without resort to the singular agendum, datum and medium (unless distinguishing large and small).

To my great delight, this word is still in the dictionary: “the whole system and structure of a language.” What inspiration! Grammar has not yet been abandoned! Well, at least it’s still defined, if not widely worshipped.

To my great despair, we have expanded the definition of another perfectly fine word too far. Grow made sense when we were growing vegetables or flowers or even beards and mustaches and pony tails. But now we try to grow whole industries and important investments. Please, I beg you, give me just a few more years respite before dragging this newfangled definition into formal documents.

We close with a tribute to Sue Graft-on. Of course, in the legal setting, we think of graft as a shady way to make money. I prefer the first definition in my dictionary, from the agricultural and medical realms. Grafting involves attaching two things together, like an apple tree with a strong root system with another that bears crisp, tart fruit. Or like tissue that is transplanted from the healthy leg to the burned arm.

I’d rather avoid the figurative meaning of graft—permanently but inappropriately attaching two things—like grafting American democracy onto every other country on the planet (though on second thought, that hasn’t been so permanent).

My favorite definition of graft is informal and British. Is simply means “hard work.” We produce good writing through sheer, hard graft.

Source: The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) (aka “my favorite dictionary”).  


Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2012 Suzanne E. Rowe

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