The Verge: “The COVID-19 pandemic was still raging when a federal judge in Florida made the fateful decision to type “sanitation” into the search bar of the Corpus of Historical American English. Many parts of the country had already dropped mask requirements, but a federal mask mandate on planes and other public transportation was still in place. A lawsuit challenging the mandate had come before Judge Kathryn Mizelle, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas. The Biden administration said the mandate was valid, based on a law that authorizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to introduce rules around “sanitation” to prevent the spread of disease. Mizelle took a textualist approach to the question — looking specifically at the meaning of the words in the law. But along with consulting dictionaries, she consulted a database of language, called a corpus, built by a Brigham Young University linguistics professor for other linguists. Pulling every example of the word “sanitation” from 1930 to 1944, she concluded that “sanitation” was used to describe actively making something clean — not as a way to keep something clean. So, she decided, masks aren’t actually “sanitation.” The mask mandate was overturned, one of the final steps in the defanging of public health authorities, even as infectious disease ran rampant.
Using corpora to answer legal questions, a strategy often referred to as legal corpus linguistics, has grown increasingly popular in some legal circles within the past decade. It’s been used by judges on the Michigan Supreme Court and the Utah Supreme Court, and, this past March, was referenced by the US Supreme Court during oral arguments for the first time. “It’s been growing rapidly since 2018,” says Kevin Tobia, a professor at Georgetown Law. “And it’s only going to continue to grow.”It’s only going to continue to grow.A corpus is a vast database of written language that can include things like books, articles, speeches, and other texts, amounting to hundreds of millions of lines of text or more. Linguists usually use corpora for scholarly projects to break down how language is used and what words are used for…”