When addressing the court, be sure not to bungle common expressions
When U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga) told the American people that the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol could not accurately be called an “insurrection,” he not only made a highly dubious statement, he botched a common English language expression.
“I can tell you the House floor was never breached. … There were undisciplined mob rioters and those who committed acts of vandalism, but there was no insurrection,” Clyde said at the May 12, 2021 hearing on the matter. “To call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold-faced lie.”
We think the congressman meant to describe the “lie” as bald-faced, not bold-faced.
(Interestingly, in reporting Clyde’s statements, some publications, including The Gainesville Times, which is located in his North Georgia district, and Business Insider, actually corrected the expression for him.)
A bald-faced lie is one that is obvious, unambiguous, and readily apparent—like the visage of a person unobscured by facial hair. Bald-faced is a pejorative term, as it more specifically means shameless or brazen, which is the sense Rep. Clyde intended. A synonym is barefaced, a word that Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary tells us emerged in the late 16th century to refer to a beardless or unmasked face. Barefaced came to have a negative connotation, like unscrupulous. Roughly in the mid-20th century, bald-faced lie started replacing barefaced lie in American publications.
So, what then is a bold-faced lie? One that appears in thick type, like the font style for a newspaper headline? Does bold-faced lie make as much sense as bald-faced lie—in the context that Rep. Clyde used the idiom?
That’s not to say that boldface isn’t a legitimate term. Used correctly, it means important or deserving of emphasis: “The guest list included several boldface names.” In that sentence, it would not be incorrect to write bold-faced instead of boldface, but, according to Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), boldface is the preferred spelling.
To be fair, people often mistakenly say or write bold-faced when describing an audacious or unabashed untruth. But in your legal briefs and oral arguments before the court, you don’t want to do that. Being a good lawyer is, if nothing else, about wielding words and expressions correctly—with precision and careful control. For that reason, as we advised in this column several years ago, keep a usage guide handy (https://www.sfbar.org/blog/legal-writing-tip-keep-a-usage-guide-handy/).
Here are two other frequently flubbed expressions:
Champing at the bit
If someone is feeling restless, or waiting impatiently to do something, they are more correctly described as champing at the bit, not chomping at it.
To champ is to make biting or gnashing movements. Champing at the bit refers to the way a racehorse nervously gnaws at its metal bit, eager to break from the starting gate. But the horse does not chomp the bit—it does not actually take a bite out of it or eat it.
In Modern American Usage, published in 2009, Garner notes that appearance of chomping at the bit in print instead of champing at the bit has reached Stage 4 of the “Language-Change Index,” meaning the swap has become “virtually universal but is still opposed on cogent grounds by linguistic stalwarts.” Applying his “School-Discipline Analogy,” saying or writing chomping at the bit in lieu of champing at the bit warrants a 1-hour detention, and, according to his “Etiquette Analogy” chart, using the less preferred form compares to dining with your elbows on the table. Certainly, that little faux pas is not nearly as objectionable as “audibly farting,” which is Garner’s “Etiquette Analogy” for a misuse that is at Stage 1 of the Language-Change Index. But if you met the judge for supper at a nice restaurant, would you eat with your elbows on the table? We think not. So, stick with champing at the bit when addressing the court.
Speaking of horse tack…
In reviewing legal briefs, we’ve also seen free reign mistakenly used where the meaning of free rein is intended.
The expression free rein originated as a bit of horseback-riding jargon that Merriam-Webster says first appeared in print with the figurative meaning of “freedom of action” in the 17th century. Reins are the straps that riders use to control their steeds. When you give a horse free rein, you are holding the straps so loosely that the horse can set its own pace and go wherever it chooses.
Reign, on the other hand, is “royal authority”—the “sway or influence” that monarchs have over their domains. Merriam-Webster defines the verb form as “to possess or exercise sovereign power,” or “to hold power as chief of state although possessing little [or no] governing authority,” or “to be predominant or prevalent,” as in this sentence: On January 6, 2021, chaos reigned in the Capitol.
Free reign started to appear in print in lieu of free rein in the late 19th century—a development that Merriam-Webster calls puzzling, given that the horse was still the primary means of transportation at that time.
Since fewer people ride horses these days, perhaps the confusion has become understandable, as Merriam-Webster notes. Even so, free reign remains “an illogical variant” of free rein. One way to stop yourself from writing free reign when you mean free rein is to remember other common figurative expressions that owe their origins to manners in which riders handle their horses’ reins, such as keeping a tight rein on something, or reining it in, or handing the reins over to someone else.
By Garner’s account, free reign for free rein has reached Stage 2 of the Language-Change Index, meaning the switch has “spread to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.” Applying his “School-Grade” and “School-Discipline” analogies, you get a D and a 2-month suspension for writing free reign instead of free rein. And if you make the mistake in a brief to the court, according to his “Parliamentary-Discipline Analogy” and “Etiquette Analogy” charts, you should be “censure[d]” for “audibly belching” in front of the judge.
About the Author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF