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Friday, September 21, 2012


[T]he meaning of a word is its use in the language. And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.

 - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Aphorism 43


I've been thinking about language for a variety reasons of late: Sam's continued linguistic progress whilst retaining some old private "language"; a discussion on Facebook about the meaning of "Creationism"; birthers and their parsing of "natural born citizen".  The more I find myself down the rabbit hole (there's glory for you!) with the last thing, the madder I get.

Language is a tricky thing.  Sometimes complex words hide simple meanings.  Often words that look like they have obvious meanings do not because they are terms of art or jargon that have some context-sensitive nuance.  For example:

"Common sense" might tell someone that "unavoidably unsafe" products like vaccines, which carry some risk of injury, are bad and should not be used--conversely, anybody who claims vaccines are "safe" are deluded and lack "common sense".  But the classification of 'unavoidably unsafe' is a very specific legal term that doesn't quite mean what it sounds like to a layperson:

The most widely recognized category of products is probably prescription drugs. Indeed, some courts hold that all prescription drugs automatically qualify as unavoidably unsafe on the theory that public policy favors the development of beneficial drugs even though some risks might accompany their introduction. Other courts weigh the usefulness of the drug against its risk of harm in the same manner as they would for any other product.

The same reasoning that leads many courts to conclude that prescription drugs are unavoidably unsafe leads courts to conclude that medical devices, vaccines, and blood products are also unavoidable unsafe. When deciding whether these products are unavoidably unsafe the court may look at the type and quality of research done on the drug or device. Courts also look at how necessary to human survival and public health the medical product is, and whether the FDA looked at the medical product to determine its risk vs. its utility.


No advocate of immunization--mandatory or voluntary--ever suggests that there is no risk.  Yet we do say vaccines are "safe" in the sense that the chance and danger of side effects is relatively small (depending on the side effect).

Safe can mean "without risk" or "unhurt", but not always.  Cars are safe.  Unless you drive too fast in wet conditions without wearing a seatbelt.  Guns are safe.  Unless you leave them loaded at the eye-level of toddlers.  And you can keep valuables safe in a safe.  To understand 'safe', you must understand its use.

With that as backdrop, I return to the birther's favorite Swiss, Emerich de Vattel.

Beyond their inability to understand that there are such things as synonyms (e.g., even the Constitution uses 'members' to refer to 'Representatives' in the same section of Article I), our skeptical friends also don't seem to realize that translating from one language to another can introduce quite a problem.

Any time I can dust off my degree in Russian, I do.  The literal translation of the word 'narod' can be  'people' in English.  But this term carries an incredible amount of history, culture and nuance, all tempered by Russians' unique view of the world.  If one really wanted to use the English equivalent, one might say "the People", but even that still missed a good bit of its flavor, to the point that some folks (myself included) will generally not translate it, but rely on the context to convey its overall meaning.  Just as with poetry, the Bible, Talmud and Q'uran, what have you, sometimes when you translate, you lose meaning.

I say all that because, of course, Vattel's seminal work was written in French.  First translated in 1760, it has gone through a few different editions.  Turns out, it seems that versions in print at the time the Constitution was ratified did not, in fact, contain the phrase "natural born citizen."  Strange that they obsess on a very specific, literal, totally-without-synonym term of art that doesn't appear in the writing they cite.

I'll further note that he started his tome by first translating another author, Christian Wolff, who wrote (in Latin):

[A] native country is a place where the parents have domicile at the time of one's birth...Since your native country depends upon birth, moreover, since what has been done cannot be undone, your native country remains your native country, even if you establish your domicile outside of it, or abandon it, or even if you are driven out of it.

Birthers want to suggest that Vattel had a huge influence on the Framers, but they have ignored the fact that somebody influenced him, just as they ignore his own (translated) words in the 1797 edition:

The natives, or natural-born citizens...

Wait, these different words mean the same thing?  And later:

A nation, or the sovereign who represents it, may grant to a foreigner the quality of citizen, by admitting him into the body of the political society. This is called naturalisation. There are some states in which the sovereign cannot grant to a foreigner all the rights of citizens,—for example, that of holding public offices,—and where, consequently, he has the power of granting only an imperfect naturalisation. It is here a regulation of the fundamental law...[T]here are states, as, for instance, England, where the single circumstance of being born in the country naturalises the children of a foreigner.

Notice to Vattel, there are at least two degrees of naturalization, including "imperfect" which confers partial citizenship rights, to...well, something more perfect that could allow holding public office, all determined by law.  Since naturalization carries no modifier in his example of England, we can understand he means "full citizenship" in that case.  Hmm.

So really, in the context of all this, plus British common law, US naturalization statute, and basic English synonyms, it's pretty hard to make any argument based on an appeal to Vattel's words inscribed on stone tablets come down from the mountain.  But I suppose we already knew that, just as every court and government agency has for, like...ever (not that I literally mean forever).


PS--Speaking of influences on the Framers, they apparently cited Blackstone about 16 times more often than Vattel.

PPS--And speaking of Wittgenstein...

September 21, 2012 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink


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I think your essays on language needs more Lewis Carroll and less Wittgenstein.

If you eat what you like, do you like what you eat?

Posted by: Snarki, child of Loki | Sep 21, 2012 9:01:49 AM

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