I’ll bet you think you know what a chicken is, don’t you? It’s that thing with feathers and the weird red thing underneath its chin and on the top of its head. It lays eggs, and tries to stay away from the fox.
So when there is a law about the interstate transportation of chickens it means…..well, that’s where you get high priced lawyers arguing in federal court about what the word “chicken” means. (Seriously. See Frigaliment Importing Co. v. BNS International Sales Corp, 190 F. Supp. 116 (1960).) Does it mean live chickens? Dead chickens? Plucked chickens? Chicken breasts? Frozen buffalo wings? Chicken nuggets? Rubber chickens? Eggs (which are embryonic chickens, after all – in which case, does it matter if they are fertilized eggs)? Chicken-shaped marshmallow candy? Do the rules apply to all of these things? Some? Where is the line drawn?
Legalese is a language which manages to split each hair ten different ways, and even that leaves room to argue about the relative size and quality of each split end. (See, for example, my general disclaimer at the end of this column.)
People deal with legal documents all the time. Every time you go to the doctor’s office and sign the forms, you are signing something drafted by a lawyer. The back of almost every ticket to every event contains fine print. All your banking and investing involves lots of contracts. Your cell phone and your insurance are all contracts. Most of us just sign these things without reading all the words. I admit to being guilty of this, too, because if I stopped to read every word of fine print I would never have time to do anything else. Just remember — every time you sign your name to something, you are bound to the legal meaning of the words, whether or not you have actually read them, and whether or not you understood them if you did. Because your signature means you said you read and understood them all.
Most of the time this doesn’t matter. When things go relatively well, as they usually do, it is a no-harm-no-foul situation. But when your insurance company won’t reimburse you for something obviously reimburseable because you didn’t submit a notarized Statement of Loss as required by Section VI, Paragraph 3(b)(iii) in a document you aren’t even sure you ever took out of the envelope it came in before tossing it in the recycling, suddenly all that matters. And even if you read that paragraph, and submitted a notarized list (with receipts stapled to the back!) stating what you lost, it might not be good enough because a Statement of Loss is a particular form you have to download from the website and………and let’s not even get in to when you draw up your own lease or promissory note and are presumed by the Court to have written it in Legalese, when you wrote it in English. It would be like writing a letter in French having only had one year of high school French 15 years ago and a French dictionary with half the pages missing.
The precision of the language in Legalese drives most non-legal professionals crazy, but the embarrassing truth is that I like it that way. I’m the kind of person who has very strong opinions about comma placement and other grammatical quirks. I like being precise. I like leaving no room for interpretation. In my experience as a lawyer and as a human being, approximately 93% of all the world’s problems boil down to misunderstandings. If we say exactly what we mean, and mean precisely what we say, we can acheive world peace.
This column was written by a lawyer, but is not intended to give legal advice of any kind. It is for general and mostly vague informational purposes only. Your case and your situation can only be evaluated by personal examination of the facts by a legal professional