Tuesday, January 19, 2010


The ABA Journal had another great report from the linguistic cutting edge, the U.S. Supreme Court:

"University of Michigan law professor Richard Friedman was trying to define the scope of the confrontation clause in oral arguments yesterday when he was called on to define another term: orthogonal.  Friedman used the word when he indicated that a justice’s question was not pertinent to the present case, according to The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times and the Washington Post. 'I think that issue is entirely orthogonal to the issue here,'  he said. The word is a math term meaning things are perpendicular or at right angles, but Friedman used it to mean that two propositions are irrelevant, the BLT says.

That got the attention of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. 'I'm sorry. Entirely what?' he said.

'Orthogonal,' Friedman replied. 'Right angle. Unrelated. Irrelevant.'

Friedman tried to continue, but Justice Antonin Scalia jumped in. 'What was that adjective? I liked that,'  he said.  'I think we should use that in the opinion,' Scalia later added. 'Or the dissent,' said Roberts."


  1. This really violates the etymology of "orthogonal" which, like "orthodoxy" "orthopedic," "orthography" derives from Greek "orthos" meaning upright, straight, and, by implication, correct. No way should it ever mean "irrelevant."

    But I notice with interest that the Supremes seized on this irrelevancy with enthusiasm, which observation could, if I were wittier, lead to all kinds of punning uses of "ortho-" words. Where's Shakespeare or Pope when you need them?

  2. The use of the term 'orthogonal' to mean 'independent' is common among mathematicians, scientists and in professions such as software engineering.

    The use derives from the meaning of 'orthogonal', namely 'at right angles', not its Greek enymological origins.

    North-south is at right angles to east-west. You can move in a north-south direction without changing your east-west position: your latitude is independent of your longitude - because latitude and longitude are orthogonal.

    Or in Cartesian coordinates the x-axis and y-axis are orthogonal and x and y are independent variables.

    If two quantities can be changed independently of each other they are, in common mathematical parlance, orthogonal.

  3. Martin--

    Thank you for your erudite offering on this language.