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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s? | therapese | “limits,” “principles,” “sense of propriety”)

This word dropped onto my list from The Simpsons, not that it originated there. When Edna goes against Ned Flanders’s — her new husband’s — wishes, she apologizes for overstepping Ned’s boundaries. She means that she violated his sense of right and wrong, and this use of “boundaries” has become pretty standard. Yet a boundary of necessity has two sides. Most of the time, the phrase is used to denote a breach of one’s own definition of acceptable behavior, or simply one’s defenses, by another person, that is, from the outside. It can also go the other way. A boundary may be a self-imposed limit that one transgresses with no help from others, perhaps by accident. This sense of the word seems to be falling out of favor. The emphasis today falls on overstepping someone else’s boundaries; in the old days it was more common to talk about overstepping one’s own boundaries.

Most of the time, it’s really two sides of the same coin. One example: Attacks on the press for disseminating explicit photographs often use just that phrase — “overstepping boundaries” — to accuse publishers of violating the constraints of common decency. The complainers treat it as a breach from the inside, in which the press of its own volition transgresses its declared standards. However, if enough members of the community are outraged, then it makes just as much sense to talk about their boundaries being overstepped as the press breaking its own rules. It’s quite possible for someone to transgress another person’s boundaries without breaching their own, of course. I may tell a joke I consider harmless that offends someone else. To a great extent, the rules and practices of society are intended to smooth out those differences and give us all a similar notion of where the lines are. Most of the time it works.

A web site called defines “personal boundaries” thus: “the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others.” They are our defenses, and ultimately they guard our sense of self. And they can also protect, or at least define, physical safety, as when a child defends her boundaries against a hostile adult. But in truth the boundary has become invisible, marking territory that can never be found on a map. A concept once used to talk only about physical space now refers as readily to the mental: one’s sense of decency, one’s privacy, one’s freedom, one’s individuality. These concepts manifest themselves constantly in the larger world, but they don’t really exist outside our heads.

bright line

(2000’s | legalese | “dividing line,” “sharp distinction” “well-defined (or widely applicable) standard”)

I intended to cover this phrase in the same post as “best practices,” but time ran out on me last week. Their most obvious point in common is the fact that “generally accepted standard” could be taken as a synonym for either expression, even though they are used in different fields in different ways and come from different places. Words generate their own mysterious connections sometimes.

Maybe this one isn’t used frequently enough outside of legal circles to qualify, but I like the phrase. Lawyers do seem to be throwing it around more and more, and it is spreading into other kinds of situations, particularly politics. Unquestionably a legal term, it should have a sexier origin. May I suggest art criticism (“The Bright Line of Tintoretto”), or maybe a device to teach small children to walk single file (“Follow the Bright Line, children!”). The first usages in judicial opinions turn up in the 1940’s, according to LexisNexis, and Justice Felix Frankfurter used it in an opinion in 1949 (Wilkerson v. McCarthy). It’s so lovely I can’t resist quoting it: “If there were a bright line dividing negligence from non-negligence, there would be no problem.” A lot of other judges couldn’t resist quoting it, either, and while it’s doubtful that Frankfurter originated the phrase, he was decisive in introducing it into the legal lexicon.

Which provokes a digression into the development of legal language. When unfamiliar expressions are used by prominent judges, they soon become current within the law, in the way that a celebrity can cause a new expression to take off in the wider culture. But many people who use the word du jour don’t realize they’re quoting a celebrity. The law, on the other hand, is founded upon direct quotation of known sources. Like religion, or witchcraft, it relies on citing formulas exactly as they were laid down earlier, rather than settling for the gist — a reminder of how old and primitive the practice of law is. Legal vocabulary (or legal doctrine) propagates rather like DNA, endlessly creating exact replicas of itself. And like DNA, it is subject to mutation, or “judicial activism,” as its foes generally call it.

And now “bright line” is generally understood to mean an unmistakable border dividing the legal from the illegal, or merely right from wrong, still its primary application. It makes a solid compound adjective, most often modifying “rule,” “distinction,” or “standard.” Justice Frankfurter used it to stand for the opposite of “case by case,” a legal standard that could be widely and easily applied, so judges don’t have to waste time examining details of closely related cases. To me, it’s more useful to think of “bright line” as the opposite of “fine line.” It’s not a subtle distinction that you have to search for, it’s obvious, blazingly clear. The term is generally used without irony, but it can suggest an overly simple or arbitrary standard adopted for convenience rather than for justice and fairness.


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