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Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Words Matter

By Shlomo Maital

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Israel

   Do words really matter?

   They do indeed. Especially when written by a diminutive Jewish woman, a Justice of the US Supreme Court for an entire generation.

   Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this, about her class with famous Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, at Cornell University: (from a blog by Frances Katz):

   “[Vladimir] Nabokov, changed the way I read and the way I write,” Ginsburg said. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

   She also says she always employs several of the lessons she learned in his class: “I seek the right word and word order,” she explained. “ And I use the ‘read aloud’ test to check whether I have succeeded.”

   Rulings and dissenting opinions are first read aloud in court before being distributed to the public, so the ‘read aloud test’ helps her be certain the language be clear enough to articulate legal arguments but still be understood by ordinary citizens.

     Her use of language is clear and direct. She redefines the issue and makes her argument. She calls on those who agree with her to push for change. She did not call on Congress directly, use inflammatory language or rhetorical flourishes. She chose her words carefully to make sure there was no misunderstanding her call for action.

     One of her law clerks said yesterday on National Public Radio, that he worked hard on a legal opinion, and wrote 10 pithy pages. RBG complimented him, then took his draft and boiled it down to 3 and one half even more pithy pages, focused clear and powerful.

     Words to matter. RBG’s words changed America and the world. She used the phrase “gender discrimination”, not “sex discrimination”, because the latter phrase, she knew, would not speak to the male Justices.

     You CAN change the world, with the right words. And with stubborn persistence, and with, as she put it, the ability to “disagree without being disagreeable”.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital