We need a Walk-Off! Is Choate a Word? Bryan Garner Disagrees with Nino, and Says it is!

January 5th, 2010

Back in November, Justice Scalia ripped an advocate for using the word “choate.”

There is no such adjective,” Scalia said. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as ‘choate.’ There is ‘inchoate,’ but the opposite of ‘inchoate’ is not ‘choate.’ “

As Barnhouse tried to move on, Scalia offered an example. “It’s like ‘gruntled,’ ” he said.

“But I think I am right on the law, Your Honor,” Barnhouse offered, but Scalia wasn’t done.

“Exactly. ‘Disgruntled,’ ” Scalia said. Some people mistakenly assume the opposite of “disgruntled” is “gruntled,” he explained.

Is gruntled a word? Questionable.

But what about choate? Bryan Garner, Justice Scalia’s co-author of the fantastic book, Making Your Case, says choate is a word.

Bryan Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, told the Times that Scalia takes issue with choate’s faulty etymological basis.

The in- in inchoate is not a negative prefix, Garner explains in his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. It comes from the Latin verb incohare, meaning “to begin, start out.” Taking away the in- from inchoate to form choate is back-formation and is part of a long tradition of removing prefixes and suffixes to find “roots” that were never there, the Times says.

Garner says choate is accepted and used “even by those who deprecate its origins.”

I think we need a Zoolander walk-off to settle this. Straight down the Great Hall at SCOTUS. Chief Justice Roberts can serve as David Bowie. And Paul Clement can be Billy Zane, because he’s pretty cool.