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COLUMN: An egg by any other name is still an egg

The semantics of Humpty Dumpty and his application in the legal system
For Your Consideration - Thom Barker

Humpty Dumpty was an egg, right?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Interestingly, although it is one of the most recognized nursery rhymes in the English language and we all know it pretty much by heart, we all accept Humpty as an anthropomorphized egg, even though he is never explicitly described as such.

In fact, when the rhyme was first introduced in the late 18th century, likely as a riddle, ‘humpty dumpty’ was a derogatory term used for short, clumsy people.

We may have Lewis Carroll to thank for Humpty being popularized as an egg. In Through the Looking Glass, the English Author’s 1871 sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Alice remarks that Humpty is “exactly like an egg.”

When he scornfully challenges her on the comment, she clarifies that she merely meant he looks like an egg, not that he is one.

So, even here, ambiguity about the nature of the character is maintained. This undoubtedly serves Carroll’s purpose for the scene, in which Humpty and Alice argue about semantics and pragmatics, something at which the author was a master.

If you recall, in the somewhat heated exchange between the two characters, Humpty insisted he could make words mean whatever he wanted.

We, of course, see people do this all the time in real life, most notoriously, perhaps, in the legal system.

In 2010, Corrections Canada denied B.C. inmate Ken MacKay’s request to purchase a thesaurus to improve his language skills because it would have put him over the $1,500 limit for prisoners’ personal possessions. The corrections service argued a thesaurus was not an educational textbook, which are exempt from the financial limit.

MacKay appealed all the way to the federal court. In his decision, Justice Sean J. Harrington invoked Carroll.

“According to Lewis Carrol [sic], ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all,’” Harrington wrote.

“In this court, Humpty Dumpty falls,” the judge continued. “In my opinion, the decision was unreasonable. A thesaurus does not lose its educational textbook or supply status and become a mere book because it is not required reading in a course offered by or approved by the institution, or because a copy is available in the library.”

Harrington is not the first judge to cite Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty. Hundreds of court decisions in English-speaking countries including Canada, the UK, the United States and Australia, contain references.

Humpty Dumpty may not have been one, but judges around the world agree an egg by any other name is still an egg.

Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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