Bench Memos

Norton Addendum

There’s something I want to add to my piece on Mary Beth Norton over on the NRO homepage today.  It may seem a small thing, and it would have unnecessarily lengthened the article, but it may be important in its own way.  When Norton says, in her New York Times op-ed, that “constructed” and “interpreted” mean the same thing, she’s abusing the language.  Whether by ignorance or by design, Norton and other academics who treat these terms as equivalent are committing a sneaky back-formation (William Safire, call your office).  The nouns “construction” and “interpretation” are synonyms in certain contexts, as every legal scholar knows.  But in this case, “construction” is the noun connected to the verb “to construe,” not the verb “to construct.”


The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “construct” as a synonym for “interpret” is an obsolete use of the former, dead since the late seventeenth century (and probably rare while it lived), while “construe” is alive and well as such a synonym from about 1400 to the present.  This is reflected in accepted usage today; it’s hard even now to imagine a judge asking a lawyer, or a teacher asking a student, how he would “construct” a passage in a certain text, if interpretation is what is asked for.  The question would be “how do you construe it?”


What difference does it make if Norton and others want to resurrect “construct” as a revived synonm for “interpret”?  Just this: Everyone today understands “construct” as “make, build, form, frame, erect,” and that may be just the muddled equivalence our postmodern historians desire.  If “construct” is what we do with history, we are disrespecting the past—as when Norton effectively denies that facts have meaning until historians like herself supply it.  If history is to be “construed” rather than “constructed”—if it is truly being “interpreted”—we are embarked on the proper historical enterprise of discerning, and perhaps debating, what is the real significance of past events, deeds, and words.


I think the Florida legislature knew exactly what it was doing when it embraced “factual” history and rejected “constructed” history.  It wasn’t ignoring the necessity of interpretation.  It was insisting on more respect for the past than appears to be fashionable among the trendiest historians today.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

Most Popular

National Security & Defense

So Long to the Iran Deal

Almost immediately after the news broke that President Trump intends to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo, media figures speculated that the decision was about Russia. The argument went like this: Tillerson was fired because he had recently criticized the Russian government ... Read More
Economy & Business

The Swamp: Navarro Nucor Edition

The Wall Street Journal has a story today about the ties between President Trump's trade adviser, Peter Navarro, and the biggest steel company in the U.S. -- Nucor Corp. It is particularly interesting in light of the stiff steel tariffs successfully pushed by Navarro, which he championed ever since he joined the ... Read More


EMPIRICAL   As I can fathom neither endlessness nor the miracle work of deities, I hypothesize, assume, and guess.   The fact that I love you and you love me is all I can prove and proves me. — This poem appears in the April 2 print issue of National Review. Read More

Nancy MacLean Won’t Quit

One of the biggest intellectual jousting matches last year was between Duke history professor Nancy MacLean, who wrote a slimy, dishonest book about Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan and the whole limited-government movement, and the many scholars who blasted holes in it. If it had been a boxing ... Read More

How Germany Vets Its Refugees

At the height of the influx of refugees into Germany in 2015–17, there was little doubt that mixed among the worthy cases were economic migrants taking advantage of the chaos to seek their fortunes in Europe. Perhaps out of instinctive pro-immigrant sentiment, Germany’s Left obscured the difference. Its ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Leave McMaster Be

About every two months, there are rumors that Gen. H. R. McMaster might be let go as Trump’s national-security adviser (along with many other stellar appointees). The world, however, is a much more logical and predictable place than it was 14 months ago. We’ve restored ties to the Gulf monarchies; Israel ... Read More