On Establishing Meaning

Words can vary substantially in their meaning and reception, with trademark law being a principal area of law concerned with the meaning and reception of language in the marketplace. Other areas of law, however, historically recognize distinctions that may arise between the ways the same word or phrase can be interpreted by different communities of speakers in different contexts. As Alan Durant notes, “in some [defamation] cases, in addition to statements which are capable of being defamatory ‘on their face’ (i.e. in respect to their natural and ordinary meaning), the law recognizes there may be a potentially defamatory meaning below the surface meaning, namely ‘innuendo meaning’. This arises in cases where the words themselves are not defamatory, but they invite an obvious and publicly available inference that yields a defamatory meaning (known as ‘false innuendo’). Alternatively, there may be knowledge known only to a subsection of the community that renders an otherwise harmless statement defamatory (‘true innuendo’). In such cases, the legal fiction of the ‘ordinary reader’ or addressee is modified” (Durant 1996 as cited by Hutton 2009, p. 170). The need by courts to establish the ‘ordinary reader’ in cases of libel can be equivocated with the need by courts in trademark law to establish an ‘ordinary consumer’ who will be dealt with in the context of a particular case. Similarly, within the realm of trademark law, it is possible for courts and linguists to find certain marks to be confusing or misleading ‘on their face’, accepting the most sweeping and universal interpretations of a particular word or phrase, if they can be proved as such. Other words, despite their original, intended, or ‘natural’ meanings may have secondary or intuitive meaning. Beyond these two situations, it is not difficult to also conceive of: (a) a speech community; (b) a geo-political space; or (c) a market or communicational context whose membership, affiliation with, residence, or experience within invites further inference, nuance, and impressions of a word or phrase that affects meaning.

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The Expert

One of the main goals of my research on the the Zugarramurdi Witch-Hunt and el Quaderno is to supplement, deepen, or perhaps in some ways correct the scholarship of one Gustav Henningsen. Henningsen is the indisputable expert on the Zugarramurdi Witch-Hunt and Inquisitor Salazar, the “Witches’ Advocate.” In fact, one of Henningsen’s major works and perhaps his most popular monograph is titled exactly that, The Witches’ Advocate. Henningsen’s own goals are clear in all of his Zugarramurdi works: he means to uphold Salazar as an important initial skeptic of witchcraft and witchcraft trials.

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