As is often the case, the opinion in a recently-decided legal case (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Phillip Abawa) turned on the meaning of a word:
“Inflict” is a narrower term than “cause.” Here, while in federal custody, Phillip Zabawa assaulted a federal law enforcement officer. The officer responded by headbutting Zabawa, which left the officer with a cut over his eye. A federal grand jury later indicted Zabawa for assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111(a)(1) and (b). Zabawa was convicted of both offenses. But § 111(b) specifies that the defendant must “inflict” the predicate injury to the officer, rather than just proximately cause it; and here, the officer himself admitted that his injury might have resulted from his application of force (i.e., the headbutt) to Zabawa, rather than from any force Zabawa applied to him. The district court found this distinction irrelevant, construing “inflict” to mean “cause.” We respectfully disagree, and reverse Zabawa’s conviction under § 111(b).
Reader S.L. pointed to this opinion's "selective use of dictionary definitions, as well as literary and other references", and wondered "if anyone at Language Log might have any observations".
S.L. asked for our observations, but what he's going to get, in fact, is my opinion, in the first sense of that word given by the American Heritage Dictionary: "A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof". It may be confusing to call my "belief or conclusion" an opinion, in a context where S.L. is asking about a judicial opinion, which the AHD defines as "A formal statement by a court or other adjudicative body of the legal reasons and principles for the conclusions of the court". But that's what language is like: words are slippery things, and polysemy is rampant.
In any case, my opinion agrees with the court's opinion in this case: if a federal officer cuts his forehead as a result of head-butting someone who is resisting the performance of the officer's official duties, it is neither accurate nor just to describe the resister as "inflict[ing] bodily injury" on the officer who head-butted him.
The court's opinion notes that dictionary definitions of inflict don't settle the question:
One dictionary defines “inflict” to mean “to cause (something unpleasant) to be endured” or, alternatively, “to give by or as if by striking.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 599 (10th ed. 1994). The former definition incorporates the word “cause” and thus arguably supports the government’s interpretation here; the latter definition is precisely the one that Zabawa advocates.
The court suggests a sort of statistical resolution, in favor of what inflict "normally" and "usually" means, "almost anywhere one looks":
[O]n balance the ordinary usage of “inflict” favors Zabawa’s interpretation. “Inflict” is a more specialized term than “cause.” Inflict normally refers to direct physical causation of physical harm: “inflicted heavy losses on the enemy; a storm that inflicted widespread damage.” American Heritage Dictionary 926 (3d ed. 1992). (When one departs from this sense of inflict—“the speaker inflicted a long and boring speech upon the audience”—the irony is usually intended.) This meaning holds almost anywhere one looks: the thermal and barometric conditions giving rise to a storm, for example, do not inflict widespread damage; the storm does. Othello dies from a wound that he inflicts upon himself, even though Iago proximately caused him to do it. Field Marshal Montgomery blundered by ordering his paratroopers to take “a bridge too far” at Arnem [sic], but he did not inflict the heavy losses that followed; the Germans did.
Iago is perhaps an example too far, at least in the sense that it's easy to find texts in which he is the unironic subject of inflict, without any "direct physical causation of physical harm":
Iago is not abnormally huge, strong or brute but it is his immense cunning that he uses as monstrous poison to inflict damage to others.
The power of Iago is exercised when he prepares and then implements an evil plan designed to inflict man with the most extreme amounts of anguish possible.
Therefore, while this does not excuse the evils Iago comes to inflict upon others, it cannot be said that he is 'without any motive.
Despite knowing what is morally good, Iago consciously makes the decision to inflict harm on those around him.
By provoking Othello's jealousy toward Cassio, Iago effectively kills two birds with one stone, inflicting harm on both his superior and the man whom his superior has chosen to take a position that Iago believes to be rightfully his.
I haven't found any texts describing Montgomery as "inflicting" casualties on his own forces at Arnhem, but on the abstract point involved, we find e.g. this from the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Handbook, 2007:
Leaders prepare to indirectly inflict suffering on their Soldiers and Marines by sending them into harm's way to accomplish the mission.
It may be true that even metaphorical uses of inflict tend to emphasize direct physical agency, clustering overall towards the "give by striking" end of the spectrum rather than towards the "cause (something unpleasant) to be endured" end. But in my opinion, this doesn't matter. Words often have many meanings, and as a result, usage statistics define semantic norms only when context is taken appropriately into account.
Thus in a random sample of 100 instances of the word opinion in the COCA corpus (out of the 29,026 total occurrences), just 8 referred to judicial opinions, while 92 fell, more or less, under the scope of the old saying that "opinions are like assholes: everybody has one". It would be a mistake to conclude that judicial opinions should be characterized normatively as examples of the AHD's first definition, "A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof".
Anyhow, that's my opinion.
For background, here's the text of 18 U.S.C. § 111:
(a) In General. – Whoever -
(1) forcibly assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with any person designated in section 1114 of this title while engaged in or on account of the performance of official duties; or
(2) forcibly assaults or intimidates any person who formerly served as a person designated in section 1114 on account of the performance of official duties during such person's term of service,
shall, where the acts in violation of this section constitute only simple assault, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both, and in all other cases, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.
(b) Enhanced Penalty. – Whoever, in the commission of any acts described in subsection (a), uses a deadly or dangerous weapon (including a weapon intended to cause death or danger but that fails to do so by reason of a defective component) or inflicts bodily injury, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.