Don’t judge this word too quickly

Photo Credit: Sarah McGowen (Flickr Creative Commons)

After a momentous couple of weeks of US Supreme Court decisions, a word not often heard has resurfaced: “jurists.”

While it is normally in the bottom 30 percent of words looked up on merriam-webster.com, “jurist” is rising on the charts: It has a green arrow, meaning “this word increased significantly in lookups over the past seven days.”

And no wonder: “Jurist” shows up more than 200 times in a Nexis search of news reports from the last two weeks of June, but only 100 or so times in the preceding two weeks. While not all of the mentions of “jurist” were in the context of the US Supreme Court, most were, and journalists (and others) often hear a word they like and run with it elsewhere.

Here are some examples of how “jurist” was used:

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“Regardless of the ‘legal gymnastics’ that five of the nine jurists performed, none change what marriage really is,” said one report, quoting a local bishop.

“Then there’s Justice Antonin Scalia, staking out his ground as a relic, like jurists and politicians who a half-century ago tried to block the movement for racial equality,” an editorial said.

On the Affordable Care Act ruling, another editorial said, “The majority opinion argued that democracy demands that the court allow lawmakers—not jurists—to set policy.”

In Oklahoma, where the state Supreme Court ruled against a display of the Ten Commandments, the attorney general spoke: “These Supreme Court justices are nothing more than politicians in black robes, masquerading as objective jurists,” he is quoted as saying. “It is time that the people chose jurists,” instead of the bar association.

So “jurist” is just another word for judge, right?

Notsofast.

A “jurist” is “a person who has a thorough knowledge of law,” Merriam-Webster says.

“Despite journalistic usage, jurist is not a synonym for judge, Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in The Careful Writer, way back in 1965.

In an “Ask the Editor” answer, The Associated Press Stylebook says: “We prefer ‘judges’ or ‘justices.’ The term ‘jurist’ usually connotes a scholar or writer in the field of law.”

But Webster’s New World College Dictionary, used by the AP, gives these definitions: “an expert in law; scholar or writer in the field of law” and, um, “judge.”

It may be true that all “judges” are “jurists,” in that they need enough expertise on the law to qualify as judges, but it’s also true that all “jurists” are not “judges,” or possibly not even lawyers.

Garner’s Modern American Usage says that British English reserves the word “jurist” for “one who has made outstanding contributions to legal thought and legal literature.” But in American English, “it is loosely applied to every judge of whatever level.” (Note the use of “loosely.”)

Bryan A. Garner, the author of said book, is also the editor of Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage and Black’s Law Dictionary. He’s a lawyer as well as a lexicographer, and has a distinguished career in both fields.

But does he qualify as a “jurist”? You be the judge.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.