As a fiction author, I spend a good amount of time thinking about how to carefully and effectively use the English language to describe characters and scenes. As an opinion writer, the same is true of conveying views and putting forth arguments. Some days, the words flow naturally. Others, they’re more of a challenge. But I do my best to structure my thoughts accurately and compellingly, and present them to the reader in a way designed to avoid misinterpretation.
That’s one of the reasons I become irritated in the comment section whenever someone deliberately distorts what I write (for the purpose of setting up what they believe to be a more effective rebuttal). I consider that type of straw-man nonsense to be a personal swipe, and it’s not my only pet-peeve on the topic of language.
Something else that drives me nuts is when people alter the very meanings of words or phrases to advance a preferred narrative. Unfortunately, this happens quite a bit in the world of politics.
I wrote about one such example back in July, when people on both sides of the political aisle were twisting the word “defund” (specifically in the context of police departments) into something it isn’t. Democrats were doing it to clean up some politically toxic rhetoric, from their side, following George Floyd’s murder. Republicans did it to misrepresent Joe Biden’s stated position on the issue of police funding.
We saw something similar a couple months ago, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. With the 2020 presidential election just around the corner, and President Trump vowing to nominate a new Supreme Court justice (who would assuredly be confirmed by a Republican-majority U.S. Senate), we started hearing a lot of the phrase, “court-packing.”
The term had a very specific meaning, as described in countless dictionaries and encyclopedias. If you had looked it up on Dictionary.com, for example, this is the precise definition you would have seen:
“an unsuccessful attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to appoint up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court, which had invalidated a number of New Deal laws.”
That’s exactly right. Roosevelt initiated ultimately failed legislation to increase the number of Supreme Court justices (beyond nine, where it’s been since 1869), in order to fill those seats and obtain court rulings that he deemed more favorable.
With Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moving quickly to fill Ginsburg’s old seat with a conservative nominee (the desired result being a more constitutionally conservative court), Democrats began pressuring then presidential candidate Joe Biden to embrace court-packing. The idea was that if Biden won, he and the Democrats would add brand new Supreme Court seats, and fill them with liberal justices to supposedly “balance” the court.
The political problem for liberals was that court-packing has long been considered a pretty radical measure, and with good reason. It’s not unconstitutional (the U.S. Constitution doesn’t define the size of the Supreme Court), but it would be an enormous change to an institutional norm that has existed for over 150 years. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the best available rationale for that institutional change was that Ginsburg had died at an inconvenient time for their political party.
It wasn’t a very compelling argument, especially when Joe Biden was running for president on a platform of returning our government and country to a state of normalcy.
So, those endorsing court-packing (or at least evoking it as a way of firing up the liberal base to vote for Biden) attempted to make the measure seem less radical to the average joe. Their strategy for doing that was to pretend the Republicans were already engaged in it.
Hence, we began seeing headlines like “Democrats Should Pack the Court — Republicans Did it First”, “Trump Packs the Court His Way”, and “Republicans have already packed the Supreme Court. Unpack it by making it bigger.”
The argument was that by aggressively filling vacancies in lower courts with conservative judges (metaphorically packing those empty seats with judges who share a similar judicial philosophy), Mitch McConnell himself was guilty of court-packing. Thus, why can’t Democrats court-pack too? Right?
Only, that’s not at all what court-packing means, not by any definition that existed prior to Ginsburg’s death. Filling existing seats is largely procedural. Adding new seats is the creation, passage, and implementation of new policy. The two are very different practices with different consequences. Still, a number of high-ranking Democratic leaders ran with the narrative.
“Over the past four years we’ve seen unprecedented court packing,” said Senator Chris Coons on Fox News.
Senator Dick Durbin agreed, telling Chuck Todd that the “American people have watched the Republicans packing the court over the last three and a half years. And they brag about it. They’ve taken every vacancy and filled it.”
Even Joe Biden joined in at one point (while playing coy as to whether or not he would pursue actual court-packing, if elected): “The only court-packing going on right now is going on with Republicans packing the court right now…”
Democratic enablers in the news media also felt inclined to help:
Can we at least recognize that “Court Packing” at all levels of the judiciary has been the Republican playbook for decades? Asking for Merrick Garland.
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) October 11, 2020
At least we can still rely on dictionaries and encyclopedias to insulate words and terms from political demagoguery and blatant misrepresentation. Right?
Not so fast.
As someone discovered the other day, Dictionary.com (whose correct definition I cited earlier, and who lists Random House Unabridged Dictionary as its proprietary source) actually added a second definition for “court-packing” just last month. Here it is (emphasis added by me):
“the practice of changing the number or composition of judges on a court, making it more favorable to particular goals or ideologies, and typically involving an increase in the number of seats on the court: Court packing can tip the balance of the Supreme Court toward the right or left.”
In other words (no pun intended), the dictionary definition of “court-packing” now reflects (and permanently substantiates) the political hijacking of the term, for use as a disingenuous political narrative designed to normalize a radical practice.
How did Dictionary.com qualify their decision to change the term’s definition, when called out for doing so on social media? Here you go:
Language evolves. So do we.
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) December 8, 2020
Language evolves. So do they. It may be poetic, but it’s also totally absurd.
One of my Twitter followers responded, providing a much better explanation:
This isn’t language evolution, it’s language manipulation. You are creating propaganda.
— Will-o’-the-Wisp (@wharrison51) December 8, 2020
While I think the term “Orwellian” is perhaps overused, what we have here is a very clear attempt, by one of the most popular reference websites in the world, to change the decades-old definition of a term purely for the purpose of accommodating a specific political initiative that was put forth by a relative handful of people.
If that doesn’t set a terrible and concerning precedent, I don’t know what does.
Note from John: I’ve been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I’ve been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d love for you to subscribe (it’s free).