The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia


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It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery, and means “deceitful or dishonest ‘manipulation’; hocus-pocus, humbug.” The dictionary’s first citation is from 1893, but Ammon Shea, at Merriam-Webster’s “Words at Play” blog, beat that by a remarkable five decades, quoting a December 1845 article from the (Reading, England) Berkshire Chronicle: “… under the present law, the averages were made up so faithfully and fairly as to prevent any jiggery-pokery.”

I myself had not encountered jiggery-pokery since 1967, when it served as the title of Anthony Hecht and John Hollander’s anthology of double dactyls. In inventing this form years earlier, the two poets had come up with some wild and crazy rules. As described by the poet Julie Larios, it consists of:

eight lines of two dactyls each, arranged in two quatrains. The first line of the poem must be nonsense (like “Higgledy-piggledy” or “Jiggery-pokery”) and the second line must be a name; the fourth and eighth lines are dactyls followed by spondees, and they rhyme; and one line of the poem (often the 6th or 7th) must be a single six-syllable word.

Here’s an example, by Hollander:

Higgledy, piggledy,
Anna Karenina
Went off her feed and just
Couldn’t relax.


Then, quite ignoring the
Threw in the sponge and was
Scraped off the tracks

The thing about Scalia, rhetorically, is that he mixes it up. Jiggery-pokery and argle-bargle (which he hauled out in 2013) are antique British formulations. But when he called an aspect of last week’s ruling “pure applesauce,” he was using an Americanism that came from early-20-century vaudeville slang. The great Ring Lardner had the motormouth nurse use it in his 1925 story “Zone of Quiet”: “Yes, Mr. Jollier, but I wasn’t born yesterday, and I know apple sauce when I hear it, and I bet you’ve told that to fifty girls.”

The ACA ruling was followed, of course, by the court’s decision on same-sex marriage. Scalia was up to the task. His dissent ranged from the obscure (a reference to the majority’s mummeries) to the inflammatory (calling the court’s opinion a “judicial putsch” could not help bringing to people’s minds the most famous putsch in history, perpetrated by Hitler in a beer hall).

And surprise: Scalia indulged in his trademark trope of sarcasm:

Rights, we are told, can “rise … from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.” (Huh? How can a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives [whatever that means] define [whatever that means] an urgent liberty [never mind], give birth to a right?)

The brackets inside parentheses are a nice touch, a sort of typographical correlative to his steam-coming-out-of-ears exasperation.

Piling on, Scalia parenthetically mocked the line, “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.”

(Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.)

Both the “ask a hippie” laugh line and the idea of better-watch-what-I-say-’cause-the-wife’s-around are pure Bob Hope, circa 1969.

As much as Scalia likes the blunt instrument of sarcasm, he doesn’t seem either adept or comfortable with its subtler cousin, irony. If he were, he probably would have resisted commenting that Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion “is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.”

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