« Justice Thomas versus the Exclusionary Rule and Federal Common Law in Collins v. Virginia
Michael Ramsey
| Main | A Response to Neal Goldfarb on the Second Amendment [Updated]
David Weisberg »

05/31/2018

More on the Second Amendment and Corpus Linguistics
Michael Ramsey

At Language Log, Neal Goldfarb: Corpora and the Second Amendment: Responding to Weisberg on the meaning of "bear arms".  It begins: 

The Originalism Blog has a guest post, by David Weisberg, taking issue with the conclusion in Dennis Baron's Washington Post op-ed that newly available evidence of historical usage shows that in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia misinterpreted the phrase keep and bear arms. That's an issue that I wrote about yesterday ("The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment") and that I'm going to be dealing with in a series of posts over the next several weeks.

One of Weisberg's arguments concerns a linguistic issue that I'm planning to address, and I think that Weisberg is mistaken. At the risk of getting out ahead of myself, I want to respond to Weisberg briefly now, with a more detailed explanation to come.

And from the core of the argument:

Weisberg frames the issue as relating to the meaning of the verb bear, and he argues that even if "the phrase 'bear arms' was almost always used around the time of the founding in a military context," that would not "that change the primary meaning of the verb 'bear,'" which he describes as meaning carry. That argument will undoubtedly strike most people as perfectly reasonable.

But what has been revealed by corpus linguistics (particularly corpus lexicography) is that Weisberg's framing is wrong. The issue is not what bear means in isolation, it is what the phrase bear arms means. Because the meaning of a word as used in a particular context is very often affected by that context. So words are not necessarily the basic units of meaning. And it is entirely possible that in its most frequent use,  bear arms was not synonymous to carry arms.

Neal Goldfarb also has the very helpful post, mentioned in the quote above: The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment.

I think the corpus linguistics analysis of the Second Amendment is going to be a very big deal, and an important test both for corpus linguistics and for gun rights advocates.  (And I'm starting to think that this post is more important than I thought at the time.)