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Semantic Drift – In re: Krogstad and the changing meanings of words

1021-Semantic-Drift

By Kenneth Bayliss

After England’s Queen Anne (1665-1714) first saw Christopher Wren’s then-new St. Paul’s Cathedral, she described it as “amusing, awful, and artificial.”1 Why so negative? At the time it was actually a great compliment to Wren’s work, given that “amusing” then meant “pleasing,” “awful” meant “awe-inspiring,” and “artificial” meant “skillfully achieved.” 

Similarly, the meaning of the word “snob” has changed dramatically through time. First, it simply meant a shoemaker. Somehow this changed, and the word’s second meaning came to denote those who sought association with persons thought to be superior. (It is speculated that this meaning might come from shoemakers in Oxford trying to ingratiate themselves with students and educators in order to sell their services.) But the word changed yet again and we now usually look to its third historical meaning: “one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior” or “one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste.”2 

The tendency of the meaning of words to change over time is known as “semantic drift.” Semantic drift is the reason that when we first read a Shakespearean play, we needed a glossary. It was not just that we came upon words we never knew—“blisson,” “petard,” or “fardels”—but that we came upon words which we thought we knew the meaning of, but did not: “nice,” meaning “precise”; “proper,” meaning “handsome”; or “silly,” meaning “innocent.”3 Most dangerous to our understanding of Shakespeare were not the words we did not know and needed to look up, but the words that we thought we already knew and therefore did not look up.

Semantic changes have affected many of our words, even the most common ones. And this presents a problem for anyone trying to interpret a statute. Minnesota has now been a state for more than 160 years, about one-third the distance in time back to Shakespeare. And because our earliest statutes were often copied from the statutes of other, older states, some of our statutes contain language that pre-dates Minnesota’s statehood. Thus, statutes have been passed down to us containing words with meanings that are very old and not always clear to us—or more problematically, words whose intended meaning we only think we know.

In Re: Krogstad and the meaning of “several”

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Supreme Court, in In Re: Krogstad,4 devoted an entire decision to the interpretation of “several” as it appears in a Minnesota venue statute, Minnesota Statute section 542.10. The case was a grand adventure in etymology and semantic drift: a dream come true for word nerds. Ultimately, the case hinged on two different meanings of the word “several,” one of which is more common—the sense meaning “more than two, but fewer than many,”—the other rarer, meaning “separate” or “multiple.” This was a close-fought dispute, as evidenced by the fact that the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Supreme Court came to different results. It took careful analysis and research into the history of the meaning of “several” to uncover the right answer. 

The venue change statute: Minnesota Statute Section 542.10

In cases with multiple defendants, Minnesota has a statute that allows defendants to transfer venue when the case is not initiated in the county where the cause of action arose and a majority of “several” defendants unite in demanding a change of venue to a different county:

If the county designated in the complaint is not the county in which the cause of action or some part thereof arose and if there are several defendants residing in different counties, the trial shall be had in the county upon which a majority of them unite in demanding or, if the numbers be equal, in that whose county seat is nearest.5

The statute seems clear enough: If a lawsuit is filed in a county in which the cause of action arose, a majority of defendants may change venue to a county that the majority of them prefer. But dicta from a 1990 case, Riddle v. Ringlewski, perhaps ignoring semantic drift, questioned whether the statute could apply in an instance involving just two defendants: 

We note that “several” is generally defined as a number more than two, Black’s Law Dictionary 1232 (5th ed.1979), and the case was properly filed in the county of residence of one of two defendants. Minn.Stat. §542.09. It appears that respondents may have improperly relied upon section 542.10 in demanding a change of venue.6

The Riddle court nevertheless acknowledged that this observation was not relevant to the outcome of the case, because the plaintiff had failed to file a timely motion to quash the defendants’ demand for change of venue.7 In In re: Krogstad, the trial court and the court of appeals8 both relied on this dicta from Riddle to support their rulings that the statute might not apply when only two defendants united in demanding a venue change. 

Competing definitions and semantic drift

Crucial to the determination of the case in In re: Krogstad were the competing dictionary definitions of “several.” An understanding of the history of the word “several” was the key to obtaining a favorable ruling in the case.  

“Several,” as it first entered the English language, derived from the Latin word “separalis,” which meant “separate” or “multiple.” This sense of the word goes back centuries. For instance, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted in the late 1700s, it included nine references to “several,” in this sense: eight in the phrase “the several States” and the other in the phrase “the several State Legislatures.” “Several” is also found in Minnesota’s constitution in a provision dating to the mid-1800s: “If a bill presented to the governor contains several items of appropriation of money, he may veto one or more of the items while approving the bill.” The use of “several” in this sense is found throughout Minnesota’s statutes, its court rules, and its administrative rules. In this sense the word means simply “separate” or “multiple.” 

But apart from the first historical definition, another meaning has crept into our language, and this meaning is now much more commonly invoked. In everyday speech we most often use the word “several” to mean a small number of things—in the words of one prominent dictionary: “more than two, but fewer than many.” Both the trial court and the court of appeals in In Re: Krogstad found this to be the applicable meaning. 

On its face, the rulings of the trial court and court of appeals adopting the second meaning of “several” were attractive, because when they applied the “more than two, but fewer than many” definition, they accepted the meaning that everyone knows best and uses most. But there were major problems with this position.

Perhaps the main reason that the “more than two, but fewer than many” definition could not apply was that the word “several” does not mean just “more than two.” Even accepting that in this sense “several” is more than two, one would never use “several” to describe a large number of things, such as the number of stars in the sky or the number of fish in the ocean. Because the definition is “more than two, but fewer than many,” the plaintiffs had to take the good with the bad: they logically had to accept that the venue rule did not apply when the number of defendants became “many.” This would mean one defendant could use the statute to change venue under a portion of the statute that applied to one defendant; two defendants could not use the statute to change venue (has to be more than two, say plaintiffs); three or more up to “many” could use the statute to change venue (more than two); but as soon as the number of defendants became “many,” the statute no longer allowed a venue transfer (but fewer than many). It made little sense that the Legislature would want such an imprecise and vacillating definition to determine venue.

The court of appeals decision in In re: Krogstad noted that all of the dictionary definitions of the meaning it relied on included the requirement “more than two.” But the decision did not address the problem created by the second half of the definition, which would require that the venue change statute not apply if “many” defendants (whatever number that is) were involved. The plaintiff’s strategy for dealing with the second part of the statute was twofold: 1) ignore it; and 2) when forced to talk about it, argue that the court needed to only consider the first half of the definition, the part before the comma, thus applying “more than two,” but lopping off “but fewer than many.” Of course, there is no basis in the law for this kind of definitional surgery. 

A careful review of the entirety of the text of the definitions gave appellants a strong case. Nevertheless, the pervasive use of “several” to mean a small number of things was difficult to overcome. But further research revealed the backwardness of the opponent’s position.

Contemporary statutes from the late 1800s

Judging by the frequency of its use in the late 1800s, the word “several” had many devotees in the Legislature. The word permeates Minnesota’s statutes from that time. By way of example, in 1894, civil actions were governed by Chapter 66 of the Minnesota Statutes. Chapter 66 was the very chapter that the 1894 venue statute was incorporated into. A review of the use of the phrase “several defendants” in this chapter, which was essentially Minnesota’s rules of civil procedure at that time, shows that it always meant “separate” or “multiple” and never meant “more than two” or “more than two, but fewer than many.” The phrase “several defendants” is used seven times in the 1894 version of Chapter 66. The first use of “several” in the chapter is to explain when a court may issue an order giving defendants an opportunity to be heard on an injunction:

In all other cases, if the court or judge deems it proper that the defendant, or any of several defendants, shall be heard before granting the injunction, an order may be made, requiring cause to be shown, at a specified time and place, why the injunction should not be granted (emphasis added).9

It is not logical to suppose that the Legislature would want to limit the court’s power in a way that would give rights to be heard to a single defendant or “more than two” defendants, but not two. Or for that matter, that they meant to cut off the right to be heard when “many” defendants were involved. All the other examples from Chapter 66 made it similarly clear that the Legislature was using the word “several” simply to mean “separate” or “multiple.”

Seeing the word “several” in statutes adopted at about the same time as the venue statute showed us appellants were on the right track.

The Constitution and current statutes

Minnesota’s constitution contains an important use of “several” and this example may have led the court to understand the potential consequence of not recognizing that “several” generally meant “separate” or “multiple” in statutes and other legal contexts.  In 1876, the Minnesota Constitution was amended to provide for a line item veto of legislative appropriations: “If a bill presented to the governor contains several items of appropriation of money, he may veto one or more of the items while approving the bill.”10

If the court of appeals decision had stood, and “several” in the context of the statute in In re: Krogstad meant either “more than two” or “more than two, but fewer than many” then there might be some surprising new limitations on the governor’s line-item veto power. If one were to adopt the “more than two” definition of “several,” then if a bill had only two items of appropriation—perhaps one offensive to the executive and one not—no line-item veto would be available. And of course, if the full and proper definition of “several” in its numeric sense were used—which requires using the “but fewer than many” limitation—then as soon as a bill contained “many” items of appropriation, the line-item veto would again be out of the governor’s reach. 

Of course, that would defeat the very purpose of the line item veto: allowing the governor to trim back “Christmas tree bills,” bills with many, perhaps hundreds or thousands, of different appropriations. Limiting the line-item veto to either “more than two” or “more than two, but fewer than many” in the context of the line item veto would be absurd. But it would be wholly consistent with the reported court of appeals decision in this case. All these problems were avoided by the Supreme Court’s reversal, recognizing that when laws use “several” in this sense, they generally mean “separate” or “multiple.”

The pervasive use of “several” in Minnesota statutes


The single reference to “several” in Minnesota’s Constitution is eclipsed by the hundreds of uses of the word in Minnesota’s statutes. A search of Minnesota Statutes on the Revisor’s website returned 257 uses of the word “several” in Minnesota’s statutes. From chapter 2 to chapter 645, there is not a single instance where the word could logically mean “more than two, but fewer than many.” By way of limited example, current statutes include “several” in the following contexts:

  • Requiring that breaking a project into “several phases” does not affect the cost thresholds which must be computed on software and hardware purchases. Minn. Stat. §16E.03, subd. 1(g) (2019).
  • Defining “brand” as including a term, design, or trademark used in connection with one or “several” grades of fertilizers or soil and plant amendment materials. Minn. Stat. §18C.005, subd. 3 (2019).
  • Providing that when there are “several” defendants in an equitable action, the court has discretion in awarding costs. Minn. Stat. §549.07.
  • When classifying an offense, allowing the aggregation of certain criminal offenses under a scheme or course of conduct involving “the same credit card number or several credit card numbers.” Minn. Stat. §609.893, subd. 3(b) (2019).

Interpreting any of these statutes to mean “more than two, but fewer than many” would lead to an inexplicable and absurd result. 

It is worth noting that “several” even lodges in chapter 645, the chapter governing the interpretation of statutes and rules: “When, in the same law, several clauses are irreconcilable, the clause last in order of date or position shall prevail.”11 It is not reasonable to argue that this rule of statutory interpretation does not apply in instances involving two clauses.

Lessons in cases involving fights over definitions

In re: Krogstad yields “several” lessons for the attorney diving into a statutory interpretation case that centers on the meanings of particular words:

  1. Look to dictionaries contemporary with the enactment of the statutory provision being considered.
  2. Come to an understanding of how words important to the statute’s meaning entered the English language and how the meanings of those words have changed with time.
  3. Look for clues to words’ meaning by considering other contemporaneous statutes or legal sources containing the words.
  4. Identify other uses of the words in Minnesota’s statutes to find analogous uses helpful to your argument.
  5. Explain what consequences flow from accepting one interpretation over another by referencing other instances of words’ uses in statutes or the constitution.

It was once famously observed that there are three categories of knowing: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. ”12 To these three categories of knowing we might add a fourth, “the unknown knowns,” those things we don’t know, but think we know. Just as when we were first reading Shakespeare and thinking that we understood when we did not, semantic drift places us in this last category—fighting against what we believe we know in order to find truth. 


KENNETH BAYLISS is an attorney with the law firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A. He practices in the areas of insurance defense, governmental liability, and appeals. KBAYLISS@QUINLIVAN.COM 


Notes

1 See Ex parte Tutt Real Est., LLC, No. 1190963, 2021 WL 1152878, at *4 (Ala. 3/26/2021).

2 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/snob. For a thorough discussion of this interesting word, see https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/snob-word-history-origin

3 https://www.bard.org/study-guides/shakespeare-words-words-words-1

4 958 N.W.2d 331 (Minn. 2021).

5 Minn. Stat. §542.10 (2019).

6 Riddle v. Ringwelski, 451 N.W.2d 372, 373 (Minn. Ct. App. 1990).

7 Id.

8 In re: Krogstad, 941 N.W.2d 750 (Minn. Ct. App. 2020).

9 Law of Minnesota, 1894, ch. 66, §5348 emphasis added.

10 Minn. Const. art. IV, §23.

11 Minn. Stat. §645.26 (2019).

12 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_are_known_knowns