ABSTRACT

The category of ordinary meaning is central to legal interpretation. Words in statutes, contracts and other legal texts are given their ordinary meaning unless the context requires otherwise. An implicit claim to neutrality, stability and communality makes ordinary language an intuitively attractive reference point in legal argumentation. But the category suffers from a corresponding sociological and sociolinguistic deficit. Put simply, there are two incompatible positions with respect to ordinary language and legal interpretation. The first sees legal interpretation primarily as a specialized activity with its own standards, techniques and rationale. The second argues for a substantial overlap between ordinary meaning-finding practices and legal interpretation. The discussion focuses primarily on issues that arise when judges interpret mundane or banal English words embedded in legal texts. Such words may be of fundamental sociocultural significance, such as woman, family or parent, basic ontological categories, such as animal or fruit, or everyday terms or activities, such as interview, information, biscuit, carriage or sandwich. The relevant genre of texts is primarily statutes, but analogous issues are raised by the interpretation of contracts, wills, patents and regulations that differentiate among classes of goods (taxes and tariffs).