"Watch the predicate"

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From Jonathan Lundell:

Can't think of anyone to ask but LL… what on earth does this mean?

The word predicate here is clearly not the grammatical term, but rather seems to be a version of OED sense 4, "U.S. Law. A basis or foundation on which something rests", or "U.S. Law. Of, relating to, or designating a crime that influences the sentencing, prosecution, etc., of a subsequent offence; (of a person) that is considered to have committed such a crime."

Some clear examples from recent news, with emphasis added —

Blake Broesch, "Congress Introduces Bill to Change FDA Predicate Date", Cigar Aficionado 2/23/2017:

The bill, known as the "FDA Deeming Authority Clarification Act of 2017," would change the predicate date for premium cigars from February 15, 2007 to August 8, 2016, the day the FDA officially took over regulatory control of the cigar industry. The lawmakers have argued that makers of "newly deemed" products have been unfairly required to "look back over nine years" for grandfathered or "predicate brands" that could be used for a Substantial Equivalence application.

Douglas Berman, "Argument analysis: Justices struggle with interplay among federal sentencing statutes", Scotusblog 3/1/2017:

At issue in Dean is whether a trial judge, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the severity of the mandated consecutive sentences. During the oral argument, several justices endorsed the government’s contention that allowing a judge to give a nominal sentence for the underlying predicate offenses in these circumstances would largely negate Congress’ purpose in enacting Section 924(c). But, echoing statutory interpretation principles that Scalia often championed in federal criminal cases, the justices also stressed that the text of the applicable sentencing statutes did not clearly foreclose the trial judge’s exercise of judicial sentencing discretion. This textualist point may carry the day for the defendant.

So apparently something that Nunes did is to be construed as the basis or foundation for finding a "way out" of something, presumably the hearings that Nunes' committee was committed to holding:

Some context, from an L.A. Times editorial "Nunes’ freelancing threatens an investigation into Russian meddling", 3/25/2017:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, complained that Nunes’ decision to share information with the White House before he provided it to the committee was a “profound irregularity.” He warned that Nunes “cannot conduct a credible investigation this way.”

He’s right: Nunes shouldn’t be briefing the president whose election campaign his committee is expected to scrutinize. Unless the chairman can reassure the public and his colleagues, including the panel’s Democrats, that his freelancing days are over, the public may look elsewhere — the Senate Intelligence Committee or a proposed 9/11-style independent commission — for a trustworthy account.

Or from Matt Flegenheimer and Emmarie Huetteman, "In Washington’s Daily Trump Wars, Devin Nunes Becomes a Human Shield", NYT 3/24/2017:

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the committee’s top Democrat, suggested that once again the chairman had acted unilaterally, this time to scuttle the hearing. And in a sign of how far their relationship has fallen, Mr. Schiff — who for weeks stood by Mr. Nunes’s side before reporters and defended him — accused him of taking that action because the White House had told him to.

Update — some further evidence that "predicate" is current pol-speak for "foundation" or "basis":




  1. Evan Harper said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 4:59 am

    You sure it's not just a malaprop for precedent?

    [(myl) Makes even less sense that way, it seems to me, even though "precedent" is a stronger collocate of "set"…

    Anyhow it's probably not not "the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject". I hope.]

  2. AntC said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 5:55 am

    @Evan, hmm? It seems too far away for a Cupertino.

    Lizza seems like a sober journalist; as opposed to a shoot-from-the-thumb purveyor of fake news.

    But maybe. Do I remember Trump mis-tweeted the same word as president ?

    It's going to be hazardous when originalist interpretations of the Law need to examine tweets from law-makers/presidents, in order to determine intent.

    [(myl) Never mind intent, in this case I'd be happy with "original public meaning", where "public" is "current DC political insider".]

  3. Mark Meckes said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    My guess is a malapropism for "precedent", made by the "top WH official" and accurately quoted by Lizza. I agree that "precedent" makes even less sense, but this is in a context of top WH officials regularly saying things that don't make sense.

  4. bks said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Predicate \Pred"i*cate\, n. [L. praedicatum, neut. of
    praedicatus, p. p. praedicare: cf. F. pr[82]dicat. See
    {Predicate}, v. t.]
    1. (Logic) That which is affirmed or denied of the subject.
    In these propositions, [bd]Paper is white,[b8] [bd]Ink is
    not white,[b8] whiteness is the predicate affirmed of
    paper and denied of ink.
    Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

  5. Jonfrum said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    I would have assumed that someone meant to say precedent. Since when do Washington types use words like predicate so finely? As a class, they can't seem to get past nuclear/nucular.

  6. David L said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 10:50 am

    I wondered if perhaps Lizza's undergraduate degree was in philosophy, but it says here that he majored in English and Mass Communication.

    It's possible that "predicate" in this unfamiliar sense has some currency in high-up Washington circles. The place is full of lawyers, you know.

  7. Haamu said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

    Assuming this is a valid idiom and not a malaprop, imagine predicate as a synonym for pretext. I'm led in this direction by my sense (without reviewing any evidence) that the phrase to predicate X on Y was originally value-neutral but, over time, has acquired connotations of dishonesty.

    Then I'm torn between two possible meanings for the phrase set a predicate.

    1. To perform an action solely so it can be used as the justification for a potentially controversial action yet to come. (I take it this is what @myl is proposing.)

    2. To define the "public" reason for something, i.e., an attempt to control political messaging.

  8. D.O. said,

    March 25, 2017 @ 9:38 pm

    From Prof. Liberman's examples it seems that the new meaning of predicate is between pretext and trigger.

  9. AntC said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 2:35 am

    Thanks Mark for the "Update". That makes it more coherent.

    So this is in the sense of action 2 being predicated upon (an interpretation of) action 1.

  10. Dave Wilton said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 8:32 am

    "Predicate" is a US legal term meaning foundation or basis (OED, sense A.4, first cite 1832). You typically see it as "predicate offense" in RICO cases to refer to prior crimes that trigger the RICO statute. You also see "predicate felony" in criminal sentencing, referring to previous crimes that justify a harsher sentence, as in a three-strikes law. As has been said before, DC is full of lawyers and they're just using a legal term.

  11. Haamu said,

    March 26, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

    Thanks from me, too, for the "Update". It provides a key: substituting "lay" for "set" unlocks some Google goodness — including clarity on the legal idiom, as well as this ADS-L thread from 2008 (which included Ben Zimmer). From there we get to this Safire NYTimes column from 2004. (Interestingly, Safire was prompted by the "set" form.)

    Then there's "CIA Chief: Putin 'Laid A Public Predicate' For Possible Moves Into Eastern Ukraine" (Buzzfeed, 3/11/2014), interesting not just because the "public" aspect that seems to be lurking in these usages is made explicit, but because the reporter parses the phrase as "laid out a public case." Now, if Putin had stated his objective and then justified it, he'd have made a "case." If, on the other hand, he kept his objective unstated (which is a good inference from Andrea Mitchell and John Brennan's exchange in the video clip there), but made some observations that will be useful in a subsequent post hoc rationalization, he's "laid a predicate" (if I'm understanding this).

    This sort of semantic bleeding (forgive me if I misuse terminology here, but I refer to the phenomenon where "predicate" starts to mean "case") is probably only possible because the original word "foundation" has been replaced by the jargony "predicate," thus weakening the connection to the underlying conceptual metaphor (reasoning = building construction).

    Here's bleeding in a different direction: Thomas Friedman seems to sever the concept of "predicate" from any form of reasoning or argument. To him, it seems to mean something like "preconditions":

    We saw a four-year drought, worst in Syria's modern history, that preceded the revolution there and produced a million refugees that basically laid the predicate for that revolution.

    (CBS, Face the Nation, 4/6/2014)

    It stands to reason that the second substitution — "set" for "lay" — weakens the conceptual metaphor linkage even more and might accelerate these semantic mutations.

    (Thanks to all for tolerating the theorizing of a "lay" person.)

  12. ajay said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 9:18 am

    Thomas Friedman seems to sever the concept of "predicate" from any form of reasoning or argument. To him, it seems to mean something like "preconditions"

    That's more or less one meaning, though. "The Syrian revolution was predicated on the existence of a million drought refugees" – the revolution couldn't have happened without them.

  13. Haamu said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    @ajay — I see a difference in whether or not there is human intent. Putin lays a predicate (Brennan's usage) by noting something (something he did not cause) with an intent to influence public reasoning. A drought (or a million refugees, depending on how you read Friedman's sentence) instead is causing something, not noting it, and can't have the intent of influencing public discourse. So it seems like a different sense.

  14. Isaac D said,

    March 27, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

    Initially I read all of these as Cupertinos for "lay the precedent" by way of smartphone autocorrect and *predecent.

    Digging a little deeper, "laying the predicate" appears to be a technical legal term (as a non-lawyer I'm not going to try and define it, but I can see it being used in legal opinions going at least as far back as 1920 from a quick Google search).

    My guess is that the term has broadened in meaning among lawyers & politicians to mean "laying the groundwork" or "laying the foundation" for further political or legal actions as part of a larger strategy.I'll defer to the lawyers among us to determine whether this broader meaning is a normal evolution of the technical term or whether it has been influenced by the similar meaning of "precedent."

    Each of the individual tweets seems to be using this sense of "strategically lay the foundation for future political or legal action."

    The assumption made by the White House spokesperson quoted by Lizza is that Nunes and the White House have a shared strategy, and that Representative Nunes's line of attack (questioning the credibility of the intelligence community for allegedly suggesting that Russia has historically supported Republicans–an obviously false historical claim if we are including Soviet Russia) was laying the foundation for future White House attacks on the credibility of the intelligence community

    Rosenberg is also looking at Rep. Nunes's actions and rhetoric as harbingers of a larger strategy being taken by the White House and/or Russia to discredit the intelligence community.

    Chait is commenting on the Trump administration's political strategy with respect to healthcare, but again he seems to be talking about preceding actions that are laying the groundwork for subsequent actions. Note that the Levitt article he linked to for support contains the following "[T]he Trump administration could actively undermine the Affordable Care Act marketplaces […] I think the insurers are going to be watching very closely how the Trump administration approaches this in the next weeks and months."

    Carter's tweet is in a different context, but again he seems to be arguing that the Marine Corps' new guidelines for use of social media are intentionally laying legal groundwork so that the Corps can begin to prosecute Marines who say things on social media contrary to the new guidelines.

  15. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

    It does seem like "predicate" is the word du journal. From a recent article by Jonathan Chait, who also wrote one of the quoted tweets:

    "The failure of Trumpcare was the product of a crusade to destroy Obamacare that had outlived any factual predicate — Republicans decided Obamacare was a socialist monstrosity that would collapse, and when it failed to collapse, tried to destroy it anyway. Many of the same characteristics can be seen in Donald Trump’s plans to destroy Barack Obama’s climate legacy. It is an angry reflex in search of an idea."

    March 28, 2017

  16. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 28, 2017 @ 5:56 pm

    Word du jour

    I hate auto fill when it changes things after I have proofread them.

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