Wednesday, May 16, 2007

You have the right to change roles

Something from Seth: mirandize. (cite) In case it's not obvious, this is an eponymous verb form of Miranda warning (apparently; everyone says Miranda rights), whereby suspects under arrest are apprised that actions they take after the arrest (like, say, confess) can be used as evidence. (The Wikipedia article, in fact, mentions the term mirandize, although they cap it, editors that they are.[1])

It's hardly surprising that Miranda warning made an easy transition to the foreshortened noun mirandas (or Mirandas). Google turns up 34 hits for their mirandas, which are split up between references to Miranda rights, The Tempest, and Star Trek.

From there, heck, it's not a big leap to verbize the word -- Google currently has about 13,000 hits for mirandize. Anu Garg has a cite from 2004. All three big dictionaries list the word, although none of them (online, anyway) have a first cite date.

Miranda rights were established by the Supreme Court on the basis of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which grants, among other things, that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." This has led to the phrase take the Fifth or plead the Fifth, which is used in a technical sense (I believe) to mean that you refuse to answer a question on the grounds that it could be self-incriminatory. The law does not interpret this as a statement of guilt, but in common parlance that's just what it means:

Q: Did you take the last of the cookies?
A: I plead the Fifth.

ie, yes.

Here, the Fifth looks and acts like a noun. It requires some extra-syntactical knowledge to understand that this is, nominally at least, an elided form of the Fifth Amendment. Does everyone who utters the phrase understand that? The answer to that question might determine whether we can consider Fifth in the Fifth as a noun or adjective. We could experiment by applying various declensions and see what works. First, let's see if it can follow some noun rules:

"What did the witness do?"
"There were three Fifths."

I can see it. How about adjective? Many adjectives have comparative and superlative forms:

"And what about the last witness?"
"He was the Fifthest of all."

A stretch, but not impossible. So, Fifth here can, assuming you buy my analysis, be biPoSer.

As an aside, it's unlikely that most people know of these things from first-hand experience (probably a good thing). We can probably credit TV with bringing Miranda and the Fifth into common discourse. It can't be a bad thing for common phrases to remind us of some of the founding principles of US law, and indeed, English common law.[2]

[1] Eric Lippert wrote a musative blog entry that raised the question of when eponymous words are capped and when they are not. His conclusion: this is English, don't expect consistency.

[2] Another Fifth Amendment-ish right that's gotten some exposure recently is habeas corpus. It's somewhat interesting that a phrase that's in subjunctive in Latin can become a noun in English. Somewhat.


Adam Freedman said...

Mirandize and "the Fifth" are great examples of what I believe linguists call "telegraphic speech." Criminal law is probably the most telegraphic of all legal fields, no doubt because the conveyer-belt rapidity of criminal proceedings requires abbreviated speech. Habeas corpus is universally shortened to habeas, as in "I'm bringing a habeas motion." Another Latin phrase "nolle prosequi" (meaning I will not pursue) is what a prosecutor says when he decides to drop a case, but it's usually abbreviated to "nolle" (pronounced "nolly"). With all this apparent informality, why not just drop Latin altogether? Answer: even in its abbreviated and role-shifted state, Latin is one way in which the legal fraternity enforces its mystique, such as it is. (I'm a lawyer myself).

WordzGuy said...

The excuse I've always heard for the use of Latin in the law is that the terms all have very precise meanings established over centuries of precedent.

Although I know all about a profession that wants to enforce its mystique, seeing as how I'm in high-tech ...