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Jul 16, 2007
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Words from the writing of Judge Bruce M. Selya

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with Anu Garg

Guest Wordsmith Judge Bruce M. Selya (honorable_bruce_selya at ca1.uscourts.gov) writes:

My love of language can be traced directly to the Providence public schools and, particularly, to Classical High School -- where four years of study in Latin was compulsory and some study of Greek was encouraged. I became fascinated with the origin and evolution of words, and the flames of my interest were fanned during my years at Harvard.

When I was fortunate enough to receive an appointment to the federal bench, I saw an opportunity to attempt to change the drabness of the prose in which judicial opinions historically have been couched. "Legal language" tends to be both stiff and prosaic, not to mention dense. Thus, if court opinions can be thought of as word pictures, many opinions over the years can be characterized as word pictures painted in various shades of gray. I thought then -- and still believe -- that interesting language and sound jurisprudence are not mutually exclusive. My opinions, therefore, tend to be word pictures painted in less somber colors -- sometimes even pastels or an occasional touch of puce.

My love of language and my approach to judicial opinion writing is controversial in some circles. Judges, by nature and by training, rarely tend to be free spirits, and I have encountered from time to time an undercurrent of anti-lexiphanicism. But like Job, I persevere. Language is the lifeblood of our culture, and it would be a shame not to use it to its fullest.

(This week's Guest Wordsmith, Bruce M. Selya, is a senior federal judge on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Anu Garg is traveling.)


(ap-uh-suh-MAT-ik) Pronunciation Sound Clip

adjective: Serving as a warning or alarm.

[From Greek apo- (away, off) + sematic (serving as a sign of danger), from sema (sign). The term is especially used in case of insects, referring to features such as bright colors or markings to warn a predator that they may be poisonous.]

"Winslow departed port in utter disregard of an aposematic forecast, and then stayed overlong in worsening seas before turning back."
Excerpt from opinion of the court (Selya, J.) in DiMillo v. Sheepscot Pilots, Inc. 1989.


I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him. -Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)

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