It's Cert., to Be Sure. But How Do They Say It? Let's Count the Ways

By Charles Lane

Monday, December 3, 2001; Page A19

Now it can be told: On an underappreciated but central aspect of their work, the justices of the Supreme Court publicly differ. At issue is a single word -- "certiorari."

The justices, of course, are all experts on certiorari. Parties to legal disputes who disagree with a lower court's ruling, and who want the Supreme Court to review it, submit petitions for certiorari -- a legal term derived from the Latin word meaning "to be made more certain" or "to be more fully informed." It's up to the justices whether to grant review; if the answer is yes, they issue a "writ of certiorari."

That much is clear. But on a different question -- how one pronounces this commonly used but maddeningly polysyllabic relic of a long-dead language -- consensus has proven elusive, as these completely unscientifically selected examples, collected by listening to the justices recently in court, suggest.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer says "ser-shah-rair-eye," the last two syllables rhyming with "fair guy." Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy, however, each pronounce the next-to-last syllable with a broad "a" sound (their version rhymes with "far cry"). Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor go with "ser-shah-rair-ee" (rhymes with "Tipperary"). Justice Clarence Thomas has been heard to pronounce the last two syllables "rahr-ree."

Who's right? In a highly academic sense, they are all wrong. No one can be sure what the Ancient Romans would have said. But modern scholars, following the teachings of the great Renaissance humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, believe that Cicero himself would have started the word with a hard "c." That would make it "kair-tee-oh-rahr-eye," said Joseph O'Connor, a professor of classics at Georgetown University. This is the version classics students learn today.

But you would probably be laughed out of court if you tried it Cicero's way. Law Latin is only a distant cousin of the classical tongue. As Latin came down through the Middle Ages, it was churned in the great linguistic mixing bowl of Europe, producing the Romance languages and taking on local intonations in those places, such as the Vatican, where it survived in daily use. American Law Latin derives from the version used in the ancient courts of Britain, which naturally adopted English pronunciation.

Thus, in the most recent edition of Black's Law Dictionary -- the Bible of such matters for American lawyers -- the preferred pronunciation for certiorari is the one employed by Breyer -- "rair-eye."

According to Charles Harrington Elster, the pronunciation editor of Black's, this usage follows English rules, which, he says, quite clearly prescribe that vowels at the end of accented syllables are long, and that "i" at the end of a word is always long.

"That's why we should say 'day-tah' instead of 'dat-tah,' " said Elster, who is also the author of "The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations."

Black's lists the Rehnquist-O'Connor "rair-ee" version as a second acceptable alternative. In a third recognized variant, the last two syllables are pronounced "rah-ree," Thomas-style.

Kennedy and Scalia's hybrid -- "rah-rye" -- is not listed in Black's. But even that does not necessarily rule it out. Says William L. Carey, a Fairfax trial lawyer who teaches Roman Law at the University of Maryland and Latin at George Mason University: "If a justice of the Supreme Court pronounces it that way, so be it."

For the record, Black's actually considers certiorari a five-syllable word, with the "o" pronounced separately, as occurs in "ratio." But Elster is willing to grant the justices, and everyone else, a pass on that point, chalking it up to the phenomenon known as syncope -- the loss or omission of a sound in the middle of a widely-used word. Syncope is why most Americans say "chok-lit" instead of sounding out each letter in "chocolate."

However, it seems that even the people who put Black's together could be more certain about certiorari. Polite disputation broke out between Elster and the editor-in-chief of Black's, Bryan A. Garner, who says he held out for "rah-ree," because "this is the way I pronounce it and so do a lot of people in the legal profession," including Garner's mentor, the late Charles Alan Wright, a distinguished Supreme Court advocate and professor of law at the University of Texas.

Elster, who concedes that his choice, "rair-eye," "is probably the least commonly-used, though it is the purest in terms of Law Latin," ultimately agreed with Garner that Garner's choice would be listed as a third acceptable variant.

The entry for certiorari in Garner's own separate volume, "A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage," notes, with indisputable accuracy, that "the most troublesome aspect of the word is its pronunciation."

There is a way out, though. In legal writing, certiorari is often abbreviated as "cert.," a much easier monosyllable pronounced just like the breath mint. Given the lack of certainty about certiorari, Garner noted, " 'cert.' has a lot to be said for it."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company