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I had to look up the phrase, “hypothetical yearly tenancy” the other day. Now right away you know this Court of Appeal gig is not all it’s cracked up to be. Jobs that require you to sweep out the stables or say no to rock stars or get bitten by spiders regularly might still be good jobs. A job that requires you to look up “hypothetical yearly tenancy” cannot possibly pay enough. I tried to avoid looking the phrase up. First, I tried to figure it out using nothing more authoritative than my own mind. (And you don’t get a whole lot less authoritative than that.) I mean, these were three words with which I was reasonably conversant. They weren’t especially difficult words, and I had used each of them regularly throughout my career. But try as I might, I couldn’t begin to figure out what their juxtaposition could signify. It was as if I’d been going through a cookbook and came across the phrase “oyster crockpot sommelier.” I knew what the words meant; I just couldn’t put them together and get anything but dissonance. But a federal circuit court had made sense of them in a case I needed to understand, so I had to somehow mold them into a form that was recognizable in my cosmos. I gave it my best shot. “Hypothetical yearly tenancy.” All right, this is where you theorize about what life would be like if you lived for a year in a rented condo in Boise, Idaho. No? OK, it’s when you call an expert to assume the existence of a one-year lease and then ask him inane questions about it. No? Then it’s pretending the year only has five months because you’re living on Mercury. (I thought this one had promise, since federal circuit judges are almost certainly extraterrestrial, and might therefore have occasion for hypothetical extraterrestrial year calculations, but it just didn’t fit in the context of the case.) I finally had to make two unhappy admissions. First, I had not the slightest idea what the phrase meant. And second, I had no law clerk who’d transgressed in any way that would justify saddling him with it. I had to look it up myself. So I pulled my Black’s off the shelf, shoveled 6 cubic yards of dust off it, and paged halfway into the longest plotless work ever written by someone not named Michener. Sure enough, there it was: hypothetical yearly tenancy, “The basis, in England, of rating lands and hereditaments to the poor-rate, and to other rates and taxes that are expressed to be leviable or assessable in like manner as the poor-rate.” Say what? Now I was confused. I closed the book and looked at the cover to make sure I had not picked up Black’s English-to-Some-Other-Language- You’ve-Never-Previously-Encountered Dictionary. “Rating lands and hereditaments to the poor-rate?” “Expressed to be leviable or assessable in like manner?” Who wrote this, Chewbacca the Wookie? You could hold a Sanskrit computer program up to a mirror and read every third word and it would make more sense than this. These were most definitely words I was not reasonably conversant with (although I have now renamed my fantasy baseball team the “Laguna Beach Hereditaments”). Nor was my spell-check program. My page as I type this is covered with little red worms under questionable words. It looks like a manuscript viewed through the eyes of Keith Richards after a Stones concert. Go ahead. Read it again. Is this, or is it not, the legal equivalent of “Fold Flap A across Tab 3 and staple both to opposite ends of the appropriate snipe flanges?” This has to be the same guy who ghost-wrote Daubert v. Merrill-Dow Pharmaceuticals. I thought Casey Stengel was dead. I read it a half-dozen times and then just started laughing. This has to be somebody’s idea of a joke. Somebody at the Black’s Law Dictionary Co. won a bet on this one. I figure when this edition was published, one of the researchers turned to the guy in the next cubicle and said, “Pay me, Antonin; I told you the editors never read what we write.” And Antonin, cursing softly as he handed over the 20, grumbled, “Fluke. Just a gawddammed fluke. You couldn’t do it again if your life depended on it.” “Do it again?” Abelard the Wordsmith roared. “I could do it 50 times. I’ve already convinced ‘em that ‘hwata’ or ‘hwatung’ means, ‘In old English law. Augury; divination.’ I’ve already gotten ‘em to publish ‘Hypobolum’ with the explanation that it was ‘the name of the bequest or legacy given by the husband to his wife, at his death, above her dowry.’ ” ‘Hwatung’ and ‘hypobolum,’ Antonin. You know how I got ‘hwatung?’ I banged all my fingers down on the keyboard at once and held them there for a count of three. My fingers made that word up. ‘If they believed those, they’ll believe anything. In fact, I don’t think we have editors anymore. I think whatever we write just goes to the janitor and he gets paid an extra 50 dollars a month for alphabetizing ‘em.” And Antonin, loyal company man that he was (but admittedly shaken to realize that “hwatung” was in Black’s as an old English word rather than a province in China) said, “I got another 20 says you can’t do it again.” So Abelard, envisioning another night of Guinness instead of Budweiser, threw back his head in laughter and said, “Make it $40 and I’ll do it on the same page! I’ll make up a word nobody could ever, not for a New York minute, think was a real word. And then I’ll make up a definition — the dumbest, most unbelievable, most palpably laughable definition since the Scots invented curling — and I’ll put the dumb made-up word and the even dumber made-up definition on the same page as the ‘hypothetical yearly tenancy’ and our editors will swallow it hook, line, sinker, rod, reel, bass boat and Chevy Suburban. You just watch.” (Curling: A game in which rocks with handles on them — yes, handles — are pushed across an ice surface toward a shuffleboard goal while players try to adjust their course — the rocks’ course, not the players’ — by melting the ice by sweeping it with brooms so fast that friction melts it. Honest. This one’s not in Black’s Law Dictionary, it’s on Canadian television, so I’m pretty sure it exists.) And that, boys and girls, has to be how the word, “hysteropotmoi” made it into the fifth edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. Yep, there it is. Just one word away from “hypothetical yearly tenancy.” The word that cost poor, loyal, straight-arrow Antonin 40 bucks because the idiot editors left it in. Right there on page 743 of Black’s Law Dictionary: hysteropotmoi. Is that a real word? Oh, absolutely. I’m sure of it. Let’s see, “hystero” from the Greek hysterikos, indicating a delusion. And “pot” from the Latin potare, meaning “to drink.” And “moi” from the French word for “me.” So “hysteropotmoi” would be a delusionary state in which the sufferer believes others are trying to drink her. Of course. Actually, that was a lot easier than the “hypothetical yearly tenancy” thing. But that’s not the definition Black’s has. Oh no. You wanna know what Black’s says? You wanna know what Abelard actually got the editors of Black’s Law Dictionary to sign off on? All right, here it is: “Those who, having been thought dead, had, after a long absence in foreign countries, returned safely home; or those who, having been thought dead in battle, had afterwards unexpectedly escaped from their enemies and returned home. These, among the Romans, were not permitted to enter their own houses at the door, but were received at a passage opened in the roof.” “A passage opened in the roof?” “A passage opened in the roof?!” Oh, sure. I can picture this without a whole lot of trouble. Guy comes home from five years of battling Ostrogoths and his wife greets him at the door and says, “Gee, Hon (or “Hun,” as the case may be), you’ve been gone so long, we thought you were dead. I’m afraid I’m remarried to Fergie the Langobard. You’ll have to enter through a hole in the roof until we get this all sorted out.” Oh, hell yeah, probably happened all the time. How could they print that? How could anybody think that was a real word? What was going on in their brapscraggins (a word that would have been in the next edition of Black’s if Abelard hadn’t tired of this game and taken a job in advertising)? As you can tell, I’m pretty upset about this whole thing. I mean, I expect basketball players and anchorwomen and sword-swallowers to have more fun than I do, but philologists?! There’s a lot more I could say about this, but I don’t have the time. I gotta go work on my car. Johnson rod broke yesterday and sheared a Knudsen nut right off. I’ll be working on it all day. You wouldn’t know anybody who has a set of metric Trahorn wrenches, would you? William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected]

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