Dictionary Arbitrage and Section 215: “Relevant”

There’s an odd footnote in the White Paper the Administration released to justify its Section 215 dragnet.

3 The word “tangible” can be used in some contexts to connote not only tactile objects like pieces of paper, but also any other things that are “capable of being perceived” by the senses. See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2013) (defining “tangible” as “capable of being perceived especially by the sense of touch”) (emphasis added).

I’m interested in it because it seems to prepare us all to discover that the Administration has been getting things–like DNA, screen captures, and similar–with Section 215 that are absurd.

But I’m also interested because the Administration chose to use Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary. A good American dictionary — and the most up-to-date version!

Which is why I found it so suspicious that the Administration decided to use a 24-year old edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for this definition.

Standing alone, “relevant” is a broad term that connotes anything “[b]earing upon, connected with, [or] pertinent to” a specified subject matter. 13 Oxford English Dictionary 561 (2d ed. 1989).

To create this dragnet, after all, the Administration has had to blow up the meaning of “relevant” beyond all meaning. And they had to dig up an old British tome for this particular, all-important definition?

So I looked up how the American Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “relevant.” Here are the first two definitions:

a : having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand

b : affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion <relevant testimony>

“Having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter and hand.” Not, “possibly maybe having a teeny fraction bearing on the matter and hand.” But a “significant and demonstrable bearing” on a terrorist investigation, in context.

So the Administration apparently looked up “relevant,” discovered it proves our point — that their use of the term is totally ridiculous — and kept digging through old dictionaries until they could find one that proved their point. (Update: Read this entire comment from Adam Colligan for more on what the dictionaries say.)

The online Oxford dictionary, by the way, provides this as the first definition for “relevant:”

closely connected with the subject you are discussing or the situation you are thinking about

As with all absurd arguments in DC, it depends on what the definition of X is.

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JimWhiteGNV RT @ElSnarkistani: Q: At what point do mass shootings become terrorism? A: When it’s a brown shooter. Carry on with the ISIS fear monge…
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JimWhiteGNV RT @ElSnarkistani: We need ISIS because asking for more $$$ to fight homegrown terrorists means you’re worried about white people.
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JimWhiteGNV RT @Casual_Obs: "U.S. isn’t sure just how much to fear Islamic State". http://t.co/bhKY73F75q #NotTheOnion cc: @FearDept
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emptywheel @abumuqawama Isn't it a relative question?
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emptywheel RT @StephanieKelton: Feds wanted homebuyers convicted in mortgage fraud case. @WilliamKBlack helped them win unprecedented acquittal. http…
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emptywheel @sarahjeong Cmon. It's not true sport unless you knock over someone with a walker.
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bmaz Since when did "trolling" become synonymous w/ANY questioning credibility of author which @TheNation intellectually is selling? #JustStop
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bmaz @riversidesam Uh, no. I was not "trolling" Zirin in least. I asked him pertinent questions, in multiple ways, because he never answered them
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emptywheel RT @Caissie: So @gofundme removed racist comments made by donors to Darren Wilson's campaign, but will let campaign continue? No more GoFun…
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bmaz .@riversidesam Well, when you see Zirin "clarify his position" about execution of black men by citizens versus a cop, let me know.
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bmaz .@riversidesam I posed it in different form because he neglected to answer any. If you, or he, call that "trolling" that is total bullshit.
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