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If you think literary authors led the way in introducing certain celebrated vulgarisms into print, think again. Fred Shapiro has found early examples of potty-mouth terms in the opinions of courts, including certain Texas courts. Shapiro, associate librarian for public services and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, is editing the forthcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations and previously edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations. He described some of his lexicographical “finds” during a Dec. 8 session of the “Language and the Law” conference at the University of Texas School of Law. His topic — “The Politically Correct United States Supreme Court and the Motherf—ing Texas Court of Criminal Appeals” — and descriptions of coarse language caused some tittering among the audience of attorneys and legal scholars. Shapiro cited his findings as examples of how electronic resources have made it easier to do research on the origins of words and phrases. While the phrase “politically correct” may not have become a buzzword until the late 20th century, Shapiro said he found the phrase in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1793 decision in Chisholm v. Georgia, the landmark case in which the Court ruled that states could be sued by citizens of other states and that the U.S. Constitution gave the high court jurisdiction over such disputes. To make the point that the government is created for the people, U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson said in an opinion that toasting the United States instead of the people of the United States is “not politically correct.” In his research, Shapiro also has looked at the “f” word, traced by the Oxford English Dictionary back to 1503. The word also appears in legal writings as early as the 1840s, he said. Shapiro cited an 1846 opinion by the Missouri Supreme Court Edgar v. McCutchen. Noting that McCutchen sued Edgar for slander, the opinion said: “The slanderous charge was carnal knowledge of a mare and the word ‘f–k’ was used to convey the imputation.” A verdict was returned for the plaintiff, and the defendant filed a motion to arrest the judgment, arguing that “the word used to convey the slander was unknown to the English language and was not understood by those to whom it was spoken.” In affirming the judgment, the Missouri court said: “Because the modesty of our lexicographers restrains them from publishing obscene words or from giving the obscene signfication [sic] to words that may be used without conveying any obscenity, it does not follow that they are not English words and not understood by those who hear them; or that chaste words may not be applied so as to be understood in an obscene sense by everyone who hears them.” NOTABLE FIRST Shapiro said another well-known vulgarism — “motherf—ing” — appeared in Texas courts’ opinions long before the earliest literary citations. The Texas Court of Appeals used the word with dashes in its 1889 opinion in Levy v. State, Shapiro said. “So there was a little bit of propriety even in the Texas Court of Appeals,” he said. In that case, M.H. Levy appealed his murder conviction for the shooting death of Justice of the Peace J.M. Joiner in Bremond, Texas, but claimed as a defense that the deceased had used that and other epithets insulting to a female relative before the shooting. The claim failed to persuade the appeals court, which affirmed Levy’s conviction. Shapiro said the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “one-upped” the Court of Appeals in 1897, skipping the dashes and printing the word “motherf—ing” in full in Fitzgerald v. State. In that case, John H. Fitzgerald was convicted of murder for shooting to death F.S. Allen after a poker game in a San Angelo, Texas, saloon. Fitzgerald argued on appeal that the trial court should have given the jury specific instructions that he could be found guilty of manslaughter if jurors found that the deceased called him a “motherf—ing son of a b—h” just before the fatal shot was fired. The court didn’t buy the argument. Shapiro, a Harvard Law School graduate who practiced law briefly before turning to library sciences, said the dictionary he is compiling is an attempt to go far beyond other quotations dictionaries in comprehensiveness and accuracy. The dictionary is to be published by Yale University Press, but no date has been set for its completion.

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