An auspicious, inopposite, statutory neglect

I’m ignorant about many things, but I hide it well by talking more and louder.   But one thing even that can’t hide is my lack of vocabulary.

As I’ve written before, the so-called advice I received to overcome this challenge in high school, like don’t bother reading (“look up every word you don’t know in the dictionary”) or master an extinct language (“learn Latin roots”), had the practicality of memorizing the thesaurus.

Over time, I learned not to worry about my vocab deficiency by just plowing forward in my reading.  Because I liked taking classes that involved books with words, the method of “fill in the blanks from surrounding words” worked well enough to survive high school, college and law school.

Of course, building up vocab through context has its limits, and my knowledge gap manifests itself in bizarre ways.

The other morning I was reading Sports Illustrated and it used the term “auspicious beginning” to describe the start to a baseball player’s season at the plate.  I had no idea “auspicious” was even a word.  I thought that it presumably meant the opposite of “inauspicious,” a word I’ve used countless times but only in one context:  an “inauspicious beginning.”  In my usage, picked up from reading books all of which apparently used the word in only one way, that phrase meant “an unpromising beginning” or “a beginning that doesn’t bode well for the future” (“bode,” oh look, a little big word!).  It turns out that this was right, but it’s a long way from understanding a word in a distinct context to using its antonym in a daily vocabulary.

Thankfully, this all happened in the privacy of my brain and I didn’t subject myself to any embarrassments, but these moments of self-relevations are rare.  More often, ignorance gets cured in a much more public fashion.

During my later years as a political science major and my venture into the legal profession, I increasingly encountered the word “inapposite” used during lectures.  For non-lawyers, the word is always used in a court decision in the following context:  “Although the plaintiff’s attorney cites this case to support his argument, the case is inapposite.”

I never saw this word in print and for the longest time, I thought that the word was “inopposite,” as in, “the case stands for the opposite proposition that you cited it for.”  A verbally inclined person would point out that this doesn’t make any sense because, just as in “inauspicious,” the addition of the prefix “in” actually negates the meaning of the word.  Alas, I am verbally challenged, so I hear a word, think I got its meaning in context and move on.  The word “opposite” seemed like a good replacement for “inapposite” and it provided  sufficient understanding of the word.

Or so I thought.

In my second year of law school (unaffectionately called “2L year”), a friend kindly pointed out that the word is actually “inapposite,” which was rather embarrassing because he was a Sophomore in college and I was well on my way to graduating from a highly respectable law school.  Perhaps the embarassment was well deserved since I never bothered to follow up on this newly-discovered knowledge by actually looking up the meaning of the word.  In writing this blog, I finally learned that “inapposite” is the antonym of “apposite,” which turns out to be an actual word that means “pertinent.”  At this point, my only question is why courts and lawyers simply don’t use the more ubiquitous (another big word!) “pertinent” to get the same point across.

At least learning about “inapposite” was educational.  Sometimes when the revelation comes, ignorance gets replaced with confusion.

In high school, I came across the phrase “salutary neglect” while studying the American colonial period,  This term, used before and after the Dominion of New England (I may not know words, but I do know American history), described a situation in the American colonies in which English parliamentary laws were not strictly enforced.

I always thought the phrase was “statutory neglect.”

I don’t exactly recall how or when this misknowledge was corrected, but the revelation was anything but illuminating.  “Statutory neglect” actually made perfect sense.  Statute means law, which was neglected.  I had no idea what “salutary” meant, but whatever the meaning, it made less sense than “statutory” in this context.  I learned today  that “salutary” means “promoting or conducive to some beneficial purpose,” which actually makes “salutary neglect” a quasi-oxymoron: presumably, if you neglect something, you’re not promoting anything good.  I suppose the phrase has subtle meaning in the historical context, but I for one would promote changing the phrase to the more sensical “statutory neglect.”

I discussed these personal ordeals with words and phrases during a random dinner conversation with a friend a couple years back.  He chuckled and jokingly asked, “How do you understand what I’m talking about?”

Come to think of it, maybe I’m not, even if I’m thinking I am.


2 Responses to “An auspicious, inopposite, statutory neglect”

  1. 1 chris S. June 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Does your vocabulary limitation stem from being “between languages”? I have a robust vocabulary, but only in one language. Because I never learned another language, I have plenty of space in my brain for obscure words and phrases.

    • 2 joesas June 9, 2010 at 10:45 pm

      Yes, IT IS! LOL.

      I always say, I have trouble with English vocab because English is my second language and I have trouble with Japanese vocab because I because English became my default language.

      As true as this is, it really is an excuse, though. There are bunch of people who are in my position who are not as verbally challenged as I am. Instead of giving up, I should have kept on trying, but around that time, I came across the word “futility.”

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