Verbal Energy

So how fast is deliberately, anyway?

Discussion around recent court decisions on gay marriage suggests that the pace of social change can be pretty swift.

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    Corbin Aoyagi, a supporter of gay marriage, waves a rainbow flag during a rally at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
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The news the other week was significant: A federal appeals court struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.

As The Washington Post explained it: “A federal appeals court ... for the first time employed a landmark Supreme Court decision to declare that the fundamental right to marriage must be extended to gay couples, adding momentum to a remarkably rapid recognition of same-sex marriage by judges nationwide.” 

But as I listened to a public radio discussion of the decision while pouring my morning coffee in the kitchen, one word in particular caught my attention, even though it was something of a throwaway line from one of the talking heads.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

We have been here before, I thought. 

The word was deliberate. As in “all deliberate speed.”

“All deliberate speed”: History-conscious readers will recognize this as a phrase used in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

A Smithsonian Institution website explains, “The Brown decision declared the system of legal segregation unconstitutional. But the Court ordered only that the states end segregation with ‘all deliberate speed.’ This vagueness about how to enforce the ruling gave segregationists the opportunity to organize resistance.” 

So what’s the story on deliberate? And is “deliberate speed” slow or fast? Deliberate looks as though it should mean the opposite of liberate, meaning to free, as in “the liberation of Paris.” 

But no, the Latin root to look for there is “libra,” the balance or scale. To deliberate is to weigh something in the balance. A jury “deliberates.” (The Oxford English Dictionary offers up a more concise earlier form, deliber, but it, alas, has gone obsolete.)

As an adjective, deliberate means intentional. A quick check of international headlines suggests that “deliberate murder” is a legal term in many jurisdictions for what Americans call “first-degree murder.”

The adverb deliberately was one of the first polysyllables we mastered as children. We used it often in appealing to the High Court of Mommy and Daddy: “He did that deliberately!” 

Delivered with tearful intensity, that term was used to suggest conscious intent (“He kicked me!”) distinct from the accidental rough-and-tumble of kids rattling around unrestrained in the back seat, as we did in the days before children traveled everywhere strapped in like tiny test pilots.

“Deliberate speed” signals clear intent and resolution, but also a lack of haste. 

That makes the phrase not quite a classic “Janus word,” one whose two meanings are directly opposite (sanction, for instance, meaning both to punish and to privilege).

Instead, “deliberate speed” can swing both ways from the middle – in rather the same way that “quite good” means one thing on one side of the Atlantic and another thing on the other. 

But on the gay marriage issue, “all deliberate speed” is turning out to be pretty swift.

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