Verbal Energy

Constitutional copy-editing

Oregonians pass by a landslide a ballot measure to copyedit their state constitution; are there other documents we’d like to tinker with?

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It was no great surprise that Oregon went blue last month. But something else on the ballot got even more votes than Obama-Biden. Measure 78, designed to copy-edit the state constitution, passed 1,129,688 votes to 441,581.

What exactly did Oregonians vote to change? Presumably some civic-political machinery must turn before the changes become fact. But Measure 78 called for a change in the terminology for the legislative, executive, and judicial parts of state government. These three are henceforth to be known in Oregon, as elsewhere, as "branches," not "departments." And the Legislature will have two "chambers," rather than two "branches," bringing Oregon in line with other states.

And oh, yes, they changed references to the secretary of State to more gender-neutral ones. That may have to do with the fact that the current secretary, smiling out from her office's home page, is Kate Brown.

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The official report on the financial impact of these changes said there would be no cost involved, which strains credulity a bit. Everything that government does, or doesn't, has a financial impact. Where will new language be carved into marble? Painted onto signs?

Still, the vote in Oregon invites the question: Are there other great documents that we'd like to tweak just a bit?

The text of the US Constitution is widely available with modernized spelling and capitalization. But the website USConstitution.net, created by the late Stephen J.J. Mount, has an entire page of discussion on misspellings. The National Archives, according to Mr. Mount, ascribes the most familiar version of the Constitution to Jacob Shallus, a clerk in the Pennsylvania State Assembly. That is to say, Shallus was the guy who dipped his pen in ink and wrote out the text.

And "ascribes," by the way, is the perfect word for this kind attribution: The text was ascribed to scribe Shallus. But I digress.

The most notable flat-out spelling error, according to Mount, is "Pensylvania," with only a single "n" in the first syllable. Pennsylvania, as we all know, was named for William Penn. That an entire commonwealth was named for one man somehow makes me feel better about Trump Tower and its ilk.

The original Constitution includes such archaisms as "chuse" for "choose" and "controul," as well as "British" spellings such as "defence." Noah Webster and his Americanizing spellings still lay decades in the future as the Framers labored (laboured?) in Philadelphia.

There is even an "it's" where "its" is called for – see Article I, Section 10.

Some modern students of the Constitution are surprised at its original Capitalization. Almost every important Noun seems to begin with a capital Letter, and what's up with that?

And what about punctuation? The commas in the Second Amendment alone have inspired reams of legal writing.

It's enough to make me think the Oregonians were brave to vote for their edits – to dare to get their own constitutional wording just the way they wanted it.

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