Why context matters

(posted by John)

I was thinking I’d write about why context matters in the interpretation of law, but I decided I’ve been doing enough law-related things of late. Nonetheless, perhaps as a sign that I’ll never escape, it was my torts professor Guido Calabresi who made this observation in class recently. He put it this way:

Why does context matter? Because “You should’ve passed, dummy” means something different between bridge hands and at halftime of the Superbowl. [Not to mention when visiting a potential benefactor at the hospital…]

-Guido Calabresi

He was indeed talking about using context to interpret laws and apply them to fact patterns. But today I’d just like to point out ten common phrases that are important to take in context:

  1. “I really need to go.” Pretty self-explanatory.
  2. “When are you getting off today?” Pardon the innuendo–let’s hope you’re talking about when they’re leaving work.
  3. “Let’s take a shot.” … on an investment? To the endzone before halftime? Or is it time to head to the bar?
  4. “He’s stupid.” This is an interesting newish bit of slang. A person can be “stupid” at something, meaning they are extraordinarily good at it. I’ve often heard it in the context of sports–someone being stupid good at basketball. I’ve even heard “He is stupid smart.”
  5. “He’s nasty” or “He’s dirty.” Correspondents of the previous example, these again are often used in the context of sports to describe someone’s extraordinary ability. They also have some obvious other meanings.
  6. “I’m late.” …
  7. “I’m sitting on something big.” If someone doesn’t know your part of the press corps…
  8. “He’s no longer with us.” A nice way of saying that someone was fired?
  9. If you’re an American in England: “She seldom wears pants to work.” Pants are the British word for underwear.
  10. “I beat her.” I hope you were playing tennis or something.

There is much more to be said on this subject. But not by me, at least not right now. Maybe others have good phrases to add to the mix?