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17 April 2019 / by / in ,

What do words mean? Don’t use a dictionary

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the Eaglet said, “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” Sharp L J said in Stocker v Stocker in the Court of Appeal, [2018] EWCA Civ 170: “The use of dictionaries does not form part of the process of determining the meaning of words.” This echoes Humpty Dumpty in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”; “‘when I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’”.

“He tried to strangle me” does not mean “he tried to kill me” to the “ordinary reasonable reader” on Facebook, ruled the Supreme Court, affirming Sharp L J’s approach. When looking to ascertain the meaning of words we should now rely on the Humpty Dumpty approach rather than the dictionary definition.

The position is somewhat different in the United Arab Emirates, The Times reports, “A British woman faces two years in jail and a £50,000 fine under Dubai’s cybercrime laws after calling her former husband’s new wife a “horse” on Facebook.”

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John Bechelet

John specialises in commercial and civil fraud litigation. Admitted as a solicitor in 1983, John worked in private practice and in-house for a leading life assurance company before establishing Bivonas with Antony Brown in 1997. John has extensive experience in a wide range of courts and tribunals including the UK Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Divisional Court. He has been involved in a number of important reported cases.