Goats, galloons, gas stations, and Gorsuch: The origin of “chevron”

Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of its competitors, right?

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A pre-bork, post-Bork?

Mere hours after the news broke that Justice Antony Scalia died over the weekend, the political fight over his sudden vacancy already broke out. Senate Republicans argue the next president should nominate his replacement. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, citing constitutional duties, will submit his pick. Everyone from pundits on cable news to scholars of U.S. history are pointing to various precedents to guide this election-year game-changer.

One U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight getting aired in all this chatter concerns Robert H. Bork, whose legacy may be less jurisprudential than lexical.


Robert Bork. Image from Wikimedia Commons

After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell on June 26, 1987, President Ronald Regan nominated Robert Bork to replace him on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats notoriously and publicly blitzed Bork’s nomination. Other liberal-leaning organizations further fueled the characterization of the then-appellate judge as an extremist. His video rental records were even leaked (though his viewing habits were quite vanilla). The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination in a 58-42 vote. (The Senate later confirmed Justice Antony Kennedy in a 97-0, after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over concerns of past marijuana use).

Thanks to this heated contest over his failed nomination, Bork was borked, eponymously verbed for “to vilify a nominee, especially in the mass media, in order to prevent their appointment to a public office,” if I may paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this memorable moment in U.S. political slang. Bork can more widely referring to thwarting a person in a similar manner, though it generally stills wears a flag pin, so to speak. This is not be confused with the caricatured interjection, Bork!, of the Muppet Swedish Chef, nor the internet-y slang, borked, meaning “broken.”

William Safire dated the first usage of bork – not long after his very nomination – to The Atlanta -Journal Constitution on August 20, 1987: “Bork’s opponents are in a frenzy. Frenzied mortals amplify some facts and gloss over others. Let’s just hope something enduring results for the justice-to-be, like a new verb: Borked. Dictionaries will say it’s synonymous with ‘maligned’.” Language has indeed memorialized Bork’s last name, though not quite honoring the original intent of this early usage.

Post-Bork, bork had a good deal of currency into the early 1990s but since ebbing, if my ear is any measure. But now, with the Republican-controlled Senate already urging the President not even to nominate Scalia’s successor, we’ll have to see if Bork gets something of a comeuppance: to pre-Bork, perhaps? Then again, blocking a nomination may just backfire – er, bork-fire, shall we say. However it shakes out, the next months in U.S. politics is going to be one cluster-bork, no doubt.

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Last week, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, declaring a right to same-sex marriage all across the Union. Court analysts have been going beneath the robes of the justices, especially Justice Kennedy in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, to deepen our understanding of the man and mind behind the opinion. Let’s go beneath the word robe for an etymological ruling.

Watch out for robbers during bath time. "Robe." Doodle by @andrescalo.
Watch out for robbers during bathtime. “Robe.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Robes have long been worn to signify one’s rank, office, or profession, and the word robe has long been used a metonym for those professions. This is true of judges, whose custom of wearing black robes is subject to differing opinions, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor herself notes. For all the justice symbolized by a judge’s robe, the origin of the word is rather criminal, shall we say.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites robe in the early 13th century. English borrowed the word from the Old French robe, which, in turn, borrowed the Germanic *rauba. Yet “borrow” might not be the best verb here. For *rauba, as with the Old French robe, means “booty” or “spoils of war” – literally, “clothes taken from an enemy.” As Walter Skeat explains, this root came to name “a garment because the spoils of the slain consisted chiefly of clothing.”

We talk about thieves taking everything but the shirts off our backs. Not so, apparently, for robes. Fugitives, however, will gladly shed their outerwear, as we saw in my recent post on escape.

This taking, this despoiling? It’s robbery. Old French also fashioned *rauba into a verb, rober, “to plunder,” “to pillage,” “to steal,” or “to rob,” source of English’s very own rob. Evidenced even before roberob, and robbery – all of which the OED attests in around 1225 – is robber, cited in a manuscript dated back to around 1175. The word appears alongside reafer (“Robberas & Reafer[as]”), which is a form of reaver, from reave, “to rob” – and related to that very *raubaReave is not very common anymore, but it does live on in bereave and bereft, characterizing the loss of a loved one we’ve been robbed of.

Indo-European scholars pick roberob, and reave from the pocket of the Proto-Indo-European root, *reup-, “to snatch.” There were was a lot of loot in this *reup-, including the very word loot, as we previously encountered on my post on loot. Other cognates include riprublerover, tempo rubato (the Italian musical term for “robbed time”) and the many English derivatives of the Latin rumpere, “to burst,” including bankruptcy, which is plaguing the likes of Puerto Rico and Greece, essentially.

If you don’t want to get robbed of your robes, guard them in a wardrobe, which is, etymologically, a “guard-robe.”


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The United States Supreme Court recently began its new term. The first item on its docket has been deciding the cases it will put on itdocket. This docket, it turns out, is a low word in a high place–etymologically, that is.

"Docket." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Docket.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


In the 15th century, a docket was a “summary,” much like the minutes of a meeting–and quite the royal one, if we consider the first appearance of the word as doggette in 1483. Over the next 100 years, it signified an “abstract,” especially for contents of letters patent. By the 17th century, we have evidence for docket‘s use as a memorandum for legal judgements in Samuel Pepys’ famed Diary, an important primary source for the period of the English Restoration–and, for lexicographers, the language of the time. Yet it is by 1790 that we arrive at its usage most familiar to American English ears, namely, a list of cases for trials, spelled, though, as docquet.  Of course, a docket lives on today in British English as a label listing out the contents of a package or delivery. And outside of the courts, American speakers may speak of dockets as their to-do lists.

I think we can easily see the legal tale of docket, and thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for it. But its etymology tells a very different kind of tale: quite literally, a horse’s tail. Or what remains of it.

Ultimately, etymologists cannot speak to the origin of docket with any final certainty. However, many converge on the same possibility: The core of docket is comprised of dock, in the sense of the “solid fleshy part of a horse’s tail” (OED). In particular, a dock–and its derivate verb “to cut off” or “curtail”–was the remaining stump when a tail was cut short, especially a horse’s tail, to ensure it did not catch in a harness. This practice is perhaps most familiar–and controversial–today with respect to dogs like Boxers.

How, then, do we go from horses to courts? Sorry Caligula, but Skeat sums it up, revealing that old etymological process of metaphor at work: “Apparently allied to the verb dock, to clip, curtail, hence to make a brief abstract.”

This dock–dok, in its earliest form around 1400–is probably from a common Germanic root, which the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology proposes means “something round” or a “bundle.” Various Germanic languages use the root to refer to “dolls” and “girls.” I suppose we should imagine a doll as a small bundle, perhaps swaddled in clothes or a blanket, or perhaps as made of straw.

To dock someone’s pay is attested in 1822 and is so derived.

“-Et” Cetera 

With dock clipped off, what of docket’s –et? It may be a variation on -ed, which forms the past tense and past participial forms of regular English verbs, and whose sound (and spelling) will vary depending on its environment.

Or it could be a visitor we’ve seen around these parts quite a bit recently (cf. target, gobbet, and, in its Italian cousin, rocket): the French diminutive -et. This form is used for masculine nouns in French and is featured in not a few everyday words. As in your new iPhone 6, whose tablet-like size renders your pocket useless. The feminine form is probably more recognizably French: -ette, like baguette. You may know its Italian counterpart in bruschetta or libretto, its Spanish iteration in señorita or Juanito.

The diminutive suffix surfaces, too, in Ernest Weekley’s alternative etymology of docket, which, according to my research, stands alone. He jumps off from the earliest attestation of doggette, seeing in it the Italian doghetta, a “bendlet in heraldry,” half the width of a so-called diagonal band on a shield. This doghetta, Weekley continues, is a diminutive of doga, a “cask stave.” He points us to label (also originating in heraldry as a kind of strip) and schedule (going back to strips of paper used in ancient Rome) for the sense evolution. A cask stave, then, supposedly resembles a heraldic band that evokes a strip of paper on which one would have recorded a docket.

Dock may make a stronger case than doga, but some word origins will never meet with final judgment.

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