"I splork for infinite splorks"

« previous post | next post »

Yesterday's SMBC undertakes to explain

It's odd, given that lawyers have been around in something like their modern form for a millennium or so, that they're not stock figures in fairy tales. What's the earliest work of fiction in which lawyers and the law have a major role? There's The Man of Law's Tale, but even though the story features elaborate adventures related to attempts to break a contract, there are no lawyers involved besides the one telling the tale.

Anyhow, here's how SMBC sets up its revision of Aladdin and the lamp:

And the punch line:

The "after comic":

This, of course, is a reference to the fact that Apple's iPhone patents include the idea of devices with rounded corners. As I understand it, the USPTO did actually grant Apple such a patent, but the jury in the recent Apple/Samsung case threw out Apple's claim based on this issue. (Though they did allow a claim of infringement relative to a patent on icons with rounded corners, so perhaps it's OK to patent geometric shapes for virtual objects, but not for real ones? Anyhow, I'd call dibs on rectangles without rounded corners, on circles and ellipses, and on triangles, diamonds, and hexagons with and without rounded corners, except that some ingenious innovator has doubtless beaten me to it…)


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    The concept of homoproprietary patents also has some interesting philosophical and psycholinguistic aspects. See here.

  2. mollymooly said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    Should the punchline be "I wish for infinite splorks"?

  3. Acilius said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    "It's odd, given that lawyers have been around in something like their modern form for a millennium or so, that they're not stock figures in fairy tales." Indeed it is not. Long ago, a five year old niece of mine asked me to tell her a bedtime story. Her father was a lawyer, many adults on both sides of her family were lawyers, and her best friends in school were also the daughters of lawyers. So I told her a story about a man who conjures up a genie and tries to get more wishes. I soon realized that there is no five year old on earth who takes any interest whatsoever in the sorts of things lawyers actually do.

  4. Tim Grant said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    Lawyers in fairy tales (kind of): Jack of Kent is a mythical British/Celtic fairy-tale figure who defeats the devil in a series of challenges. He won by careful wording of the deals he made with the devil and insisting on adherence to the contract to the letter…

    BTW there is also a British legal tweeter/blogger who takes Jack of Kent as a pseudonym and who spoke at last year's IAFL conference in Birmingham, UK.

  5. bks said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    Earliest work of fiction about lawyers?



  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    A local man started a small tea company back in the mid-1980s and was, I believe, the first to use a round teabag. He touted its advantages and actually managed to get shelf space for his tea in some supermarkets in the area. But he made a big mistake: he didn't patent the round teabag.

    Tetley did patent it and then sued him for patent infringement. I don't think the case was ever actually decided, but he went out of business because he couldn't afford the legal costs.

  7. Jeroen Mostert said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    @mollymooly: not necessary, as he already wished for "splork" to be interchangeable with "wish".

    But this does point out that you could easily argue the finer points of the concept "interchangeable". His second wish demanded that the injunction "pertain only to the concept of wishing paired with the particular word 'wish'", but if "splork" is to be interchangeable with the word "wish" in all contexts, then obviously the second wish could also let the injunction pertain to the word "splork". He might have appended "and not the particular word 'splork'", but then one could argue he effectively wished "I wish you wouldn't forbid me from making more wishes", which wouldn't have required semantic trickery and is more straightforward. Then, of course, the genie could argue that such a wish (or combination of wishes) is obviously against the spirit of the injunction against infinite wishes, even if not against the strict literal interpretation of those wishes, and in some jurisdictions this is an important part of contract law. And that's not even touching on the point that his wish is an /ex post facto/ change of the *interpretation* of an earlier clause — this changes the meaning of the contract, so arguably the genie has to explicitly assent to the new arrangement before it can be used. But then, you can argue that the concept of wishing itself inherently allows for such absurdities, in which case oh my God I've just gone cross-eyed.

    More than one person has tried to come up with "the perfect wish" — the exact combination of cleverness and legalese that'll get you exactly what you want without the possibility of a jerkass genie turning it sour. I feel obliged to point out that it's extremely unwise to argue legalese with supernatural beings, for they are subtle and prone to get away with stuff you wouldn't have imagined possible.

  8. Acilius said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    @bks: They weren't that sort of judges. Though it would be interesting to go into a courtroom and see the Honorable Judge Samson presiding.

  9. PeterW said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    I'm not sure that I would say that medieval lawyers were quite in modern form yet; I think the biggest change over the past 200 or so years (and more so it the past 50 or so) has been the availability of lawyers for people who are not "elites" in some sense of the word. Which is probably why they are not in fairy tales.

    Having said that, I always thought that the least realistic thing about Star Trek was the absence of lawyers, particularly given the number of federation regulations that were explicitly mentioned in so many shows.

    If ST were *real*, there would be an Ensign John Yoo constantly writing memos on: (1) why the prime directive didn't apply in this episode; (2) why, if it did apply, it wasn't violated; (3) why, if it did apply and was actually violated, the violation was permissible under some obscure precedent; and, finally, (4) if it applied, was violated, and no defense applied, the captain was acting in good faith, the harm was de minimis, and cultural contamination was inevitable anyway.

  10. L said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    @bks & acilius

    Indeed they weren't "that kind of judges" (although they did some of that too, as a secondary duty) but even earlier, Exodus Ch 18 (trans JPS17) sets up "real" judges – exerpt below.

    However, it STILL doesn't count as these are judges (proper) but not lawyers in the usual sense.

    Far earlier, there must have been judges serving under eg Hammurabi; we have the laws, but there must surely have been magistrates of some sort administering them. Similarly, since the Code of Hammurabi appears to be a well-developed code it likely had many forerunners. But again, none of this calls for lawyers in the usual sense – we don't know what defense and prosecution were like, or in non-litgation matters what kind of lawyering was involved.

    Ex 18:13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. 14 And when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: 'What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto even?' 15 And Moses said unto his father-in-law: 'Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.' 17 And Moses' father-in-law said unto him: 'The thing that thou doest is not good. 18 Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee; for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. 19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God be with thee: be thou for the people before God, and bring thou the causes unto God. 20 And thou shalt teach them the statutes and the laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. 21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for thee and bear the burden with thee.

  11. Rob P. said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 11:47 am

    Calvin's Dad: This is the story of the hydraulic pump (Fig. 1), the wheel shaft flange (Fig. 2), and the evil patent infringement.
    Calvin: I want a GOOD story!

  12. Mark said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    @PeterW. Perfect… just… perfect.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    As I recall, Njal's Saga has an expert in the law acting as an advocate in a law case. I'd say that's an example of lawyers "in something like their modern form".

  14. will carter, esquire said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    Shakespeare said it best, "The first thing we need to do is kill all the lawyers," quoth will carter, esq. Smiles !!!

  15. Jeff Carney said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    There are several Star Trek TOS episodes that focus on a trial or tribunal of some kind. Most of these do not have 3rd-party lawyers, but the one called "Court Martial" certainly does: some chick I can't remember, and the inimitable Elisha Cook, Jr.

  16. Paul Clarke said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    More than one person has tried to come up with "the perfect wish"

    Jeroen: Ailsa in Anthony Boucher's short story "Nellthu" has an interesting approach:

    "Don't tell me she tried the old 'For my third wish I want three more wishes'! I thought that was illegal."

    "It is, sir. The paradoxes involved go beyond even our powers. No, sir," said Nellthu, with a sort of rueful admiration, "her third wish was stronger than that. She said: 'I wish that you fall permanently and unselfishly in love with me.'"

    And so the demon makes her beautiful, rich and talented because he (?) loves her and wants to make her happy.

  17. Sili said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Having said that, I always thought that the least realistic thing about Star Trek was the absence of lawyers, particularly given the number of federation regulations that were explicitly mentioned in so many shows.

    You might like this.

  18. Circe said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    It"s odd, given that lawyers have been around in something like their modern form for a millennium or so, that they're not stock figures in fairy tales.

    In the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, the fate of a major character, Kumbhkarna, depends upon a linguistic slip induced by the goddess of (among other things) language when he was trying to negotiate a boon with one of the major gods. In particular, she caused him to ask for nidraasan (the posture of sleeping) rather than Indraasan (the throne of the king of gods).

    With a slight stretch of imagination, this might be seen as an allegory put in by some enterprising proto-lawyers as to what might happen if you don't engage one of them, even if it's the gods you are dealing with.

  19. L said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    According to Wikipedia, the source of all knowlege, the first lawyers as such were the Athenian orators, but it also says of Rome: "Emperor Claudius… legalized advocacy as a profession and allowed the Roman advocates to become the first lawyers who could practice openly"

    So it's all Derek Jacobi's fault. I just KNEW it.

    Of course this is only in the Western tradition, it's entirely possible that something akin to a lawyer existed in China or India or any of several other areas.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    @Acilius: @bks: They weren't that sort of judges

    Quite. Those from the Book of Judges were ad hoc military leaders who tended to go in for guerrilla tactics and assassinations by weird methods. In modern terms, they'd be equivalent to "resistance leaders" from a Israelite viewpoint, or "terrorist leaders" from a non-Israelite viewpoint.

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    L: There were certainly advocates, i.e. people who appeared on behalf of others in court, before that – Cicero being the most notable – though perhaps it wasn't strictly a profession. (This was not so, by contrast, in 4th Century Athens, where, though there were professional writers of court speeches, the actual litigants had to deliver them.) But there were also iurisconsulti – legal advisers – who did not (as part of their normal duties) appear in court – Cicero in one of his speeches, I think the Pro Murena, has a satirical passage about them.

  22. Circe said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    @L: While I cannot think of any ancient Indian tales involving lawyers per se, I think there are quite a few where the story crucially depends upon the precise wording of boons negotiated from the major gods. I posted an example from the Ramayana above. Another more humorous (?) example is the story of Hiranyakashipu and Narsimha. From Wikipedia, here is the boon Hiranyakashipu asked for

    O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought by any being other than those created by you, nor by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.

    Notice the attempt at diagonalization against all possible causes of death, which nevertheless, turns out to be unsuccessful later in the story (from Wikipedia again):

    In order to kill Hiranyakashipu and not upset the boon given by Brahma, the form of Narasimha was chosen. Hiranyakashipu could not be killed by human, deva or animal, Narasimha is neither one of these, as he is a form of Vishnu incarnate as a part-human, part-animal. He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his lap (neither earth nor space). Using his nails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.

  23. Pete said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    This is probably the perfect Language Log post to point out the Open Source Wish Project, which actually tries to come up with bullet- (and malicious-genie-) proof wordings for specific wishes:


    It's highly on topic too!

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    @Circe: this is very similar to the tale of the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Mabinogion, who can't be killed

    during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made

    He makes the mistake of telling the treacherous Blodeuwedd how this can be rules-lawyered. He's vulnerable

    at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat and with a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at mass

  25. Sili said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Lleu Llaw Gyffes sounds like a reverse Kraka ( neither dressed nor undressed, neither hungry nor full and neither alone nor in company).

    Any relation to Macs Beth and Duff?

  26. bv said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    I am a little surprised to not find one of my childhood favourites mentioned here.

    Since I was a little given to logical puzzles, I enjoyed it when I found the Paradox of the Court

  27. JMM said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    Too bad the genie hadn't been to law school too. Then he would have said, "Though I gave you infinite splorks, I still will grant you only [a finite number]."

    (I'm assuming there is a missing panel, where the number (usually three) is named. Otherwise the lawyer already has either unlimited splorks, or he wasted his only one on creating a synonym for wish.)

  28. L said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    Trickstering appears in most traditions – Joseph Campbell goes on at length about this – and many of the tricks are tricks of wording, which is certainly one sort of lawyering – and it's the sort in the comic, of course.

    But as a profession (or in some periods/places avocation or underground profession) it involves legal advice and representation.

    In the comic, both the lawyer and the genie represent themselves. Circe's examples are right on target.

    So the question is twofold – where did legal advisors and advocates begin, which speaks to the profession; and where did wordsmithing begin?

  29. Shanth said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    @Circe, that sort of loophole in a wish for invulnerability is quite a standard trope in Sanskrit epics. I think even Duryodhana has a similar wish from Shiva that postulates that he can't be killed by the devas, asuras and all sorts of dangerous beasts and supernatural beings. He is supposed to have omitted only monkeys and humans from the list considering the possibility of being killed by one of those out of the question. Which is why he was finally defeated by Rama, a human, leading a vanara sena or an army of monkeys.

    I'm think folklorists might be able to trace this "loophole in a wish" trope to older Indo-european folklore.

  30. jaypatrick said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    Possible weaknesses in the lawyer's reasoning:

    1) Saying "I wish the word splork were interchangeable with…" seems akin to saying "I wish you didn't say that" or "I wish your initial injunction did not apply." In either case, the genie might respond "Ya, well I bet you do. Asshole." Perhaps clarification of the genie's perspective on the relation between meaning and language would be a worthwhile use of the first of 3 wishes.

    2) Wishing "splork" and "wish" interchangeable seems potentially dangerous, insofar as a malicious genie (or a genie pissed off by the lawyer's attempt to mage the system) could fulfill it in numerous ways that the lawyer might find undesirable.

    E.g., With foresight in mind, genie might fulfill the wish by giving the lawyer a Cobra's Aphasia such that the lawyer's final wish might be heard as "Arrrr I wish your freedom with my wishes" by the genie and others.

  31. etv13 said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 3:58 am

    @Will Carter: The judge I clerked for always responded to that Shakespeare quote, "And Shakespeare put those words in the mouths of the scum of the earth!"

  32. Dan Hemmens said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 5:28 am

    Am I alone in finding it odd that in this comic the person who outwits a genie by exploiting a subtle feature of the philosophy of language is a lawyer rather than a linguist?

    Surely a *lawyer* would have taken the much more direct approach of (as somebody suggested higher up) simply wishing that it was possible to wish for more wishes.

  33. Circe said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 7:24 am

    @Shanth: Surely you mean Ravana and not Duryodhana?

    Another variant of the trope is where characters get more bullish than they have a right to be. For example, in the story of Mahishasura, he asks that he may be killed in the battlefield only by a woman. So, sure enough, he is killed by the goddess Durga. In another similar instance, in the story of Kartikeya, a demon, taking into account that the god Shiva was not going to marry again given what happened to his first marriage, asks for a boon that he may be killed only by Shiva's son. Again, that turns out to be easy to fix: the other gods convince Shiva to marry again.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 9:02 am

    For the first fictional lawyer, maybe it's Plautus' Epidicus:

    "Apoecides: An important trial of a friend is going on at the Forum; I want to go as his advocate."

    "Res magna amici apud forum agitur : ei volo
    Ire advocatus"

    Or maybe that's too early, as MYL said the modern form of lawyers is only a millennium or so old. As Andrew pointed out, being a lawyer wasn't a paid profession back then.

  35. L said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    @Dan Hemmons – the comic, for better or worse, is the comic; it says what it says. Could you rewrite it better? Quite possibly – but you can't just splork it away.

  36. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    Watching linguists analyze a joke to death is always funny.

  37. nemryn said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    See also this XKCD comic, where Black Hat Guy ends up wishing for transport to a parallel universe that's exactly like this one, except without any rules about meta-wishes.

  38. GP said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    "It's odd, given that lawyers have been around in something like their modern form for a millennium or so, that they're not stock figures in fairy tales."

    What are you talking about?

    Judges are lawyers in positions of authority.

    Death, Satan, and God have been fairy tail judges since the beginning of storytelling.

  39. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

    I think it's accurate to put a lawyer in the comic instead of a linguist. Consider debates about taxes. Jim Maule, who writes about taxes and is at Villanova, has a recent post about tax breaks vs. subsidies that reminded me of the splorking above:

    Subsidies and Tax Breaks
    "In an effort to defend tax breaks available only to the oil, gas, and extractive mineral industry, a variety of commentators are claiming that reference to “subsidies” received by the industry ought not include tax breaks. …"


    = = = = =

    One side of the tax argument says that subsidies are paid to someone and tax breaks are "earned" or something similar — that the word, whether wish or splork, is the essential issue. The other side of the argument says "if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck" — that is, a wish and a splork are the same thing, no matter what the lawyers say.

    Maybe we shouldn't be looking at fairy tales for clues to the importance of lawyers. There have been days in my life where I was absolutely certain language was invented so adolescents could say "you can't make me" as they refused to do chores. Maybe people with the souls of lawyers invented language so they'd have something more to argue about and a more ways to argue. Endlessly.

  40. Victoria Simmons said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    19th-century Irish folk hero Daniel O'Connell was a lawyer and the protagonist of a number of apocryphal stories in which he uses his wits on behalf of the less powerful against the mighty.


  41. David Duffy said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 3:08 am

    The preface of Robert Van Gulik's translation of Dee Goong An mentions that judges are usually the heroes of that type of crime novel (1600 onwards), but "petition writers" (the closest equivalent of lawyers) never appear. The judge deal with ghosts etc

  42. M (was L) said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    > Judges are lawyers in positions of authority.

    Sometimes. In some cases (eg the Book of Judges, since it was mentioned) they perform a judicial function as a secondary duty. The officers sitting on a Court Martial eg are not necessarily trained lawyers, and in ages past were rarely so. Kings often sat as judges in many cultures – staying Biblical for a moment, Solomon is pretty famous for this.

    The notion of the judiciary as a separate institution from the executive or the legislative is a modern, and in some senses American, idea. For example, the UK only in recent years created a Supreme Court outside the House of Lords, though it staffed it with the existing Law Lords if I'm not mistaken – and the executive "branch" of any parliamentary system is legislative in locus.

    A lawyer with authority is not always a judge, and a judge is not always a lawyer with authority.

    Just sayin'.

  43. Sili said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    He is supposed to have omitted only monkeys and humans from the list considering the possibility of being killed by one of those out of the question. Which is why he was finally defeated by Rama, a human, leading a vanara sena or an army of monkeys.

    I'm think folklorists might be able to trace this "loophole in a wish" trope to older Indo-european folklore.

    Certainly resonates with the story of Balder and the mistletoe.

  44. Adrian Morgan said,

    September 27, 2012 @ 6:28 am

    Here is what I would do, if I were the genie. Or the gamemaster.

    I would declare that the polysemous word "splork" can refer to: (a) The verb sense of wish, (b) The noun sense of wish, or (c) a species of small but extremely deadly spider, now emerging by their millions through a small nearby portal to another world.

    I can think of other, more merciful approaches, but it's important to send the message that you don't mess with wish-granting entities.

RSS feed for comments on this post