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Ordinary MeaningA Theory of the Most Fundamental Principle of Legal Interpretation$
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Brian G. Slocum

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226304854

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226304991.001.0001

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(p.213) Chapter Five Ordinary Meaning and Lexical Semantics

(p.213) Chapter Five Ordinary Meaning and Lexical Semantics

(p.213) Chapter Five Ordinary Meaning and Lexical Semantics
Ordinary Meaning

Brian G. Slocum

University of Chicago Press

Chapter Five addresses issues relating to lexical semantics, including the contribution of sentential (i.e., sentence level) context to the ordinary meaning of words. Proper consideration of sentential context should convince courts to not rely on acontextual dictionary definitions that often favor inappropriately broad meanings that capture ‘possible’ rather than ‘ordinary’ meanings. The judicial tendency to view word categories as formed by necessary and sufficient conditions for membership is consistent with the so-called “classical theory” of concept meaning. The classical theory, though, is inconsistent with research from linguists and psychologists on the prototypical structure of categories. Instead of a simple set of criterial features, categories do not have sharply delimited borders with clear demarcations. Rather, they are often only unambiguously defined in their focal points, and marginal areas exist between categories. Prototype theory can be accommodated to the need of the legal system for bivalent definitions (i.e., a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question of whether an item belongs in a given category), and the reduced capacity for empirical research. Even with the limitations inherent in judicial adaptation, prototype methodology is preferable to the practice of viewing meaning in terms of necessary and sufficient membership criteria.

Keywords:   lexical semantics, sentential context, prototype theory, word categories, ordinary meaning, dictionary definitions

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