Bill Long 10/15/04
Stultify is a term which had its origin in law but gradually entered into common, though elevated speech, leaving the law signification behind. Yet, stultify has an interesting story that has probably not adequately been told and which, in all likelihood, you have not yet heard.
Starting with Today
It is always tempting for me to dive into the obscure or arcane, so let's begin with the practical and present. Probably the most prominent use of stultify today is in the sense of "frustrate, impair, invalidate, reduce to futility or stagnation." The OED defines it as "render nugatory, worthless, or useless." Often the reason for this kind of "reduction" to stagnation is because of the repressive atmosphere in which we find ourselves. Therefore, you can say, quite property, that you are stultified by your work, school, marriage, etc. ("stifled" would probably be the more usual term). "The action of the Board of Directors stultified the reconstruction program."
A usage more in tune with the root of stultify is "to cause to appear foolish, ridiculous, or absurdly inconsistent." In legal usage it can mean "to make someone appear foolish," so that it is proper to say "She stultified opposing counsel's argument."
The Root and Derivatives
The Latin root stultus is trivially simple to understand. A stultus is a slow-witted, stupid, foolish or unintelligent person. Stultitia is folly and stulte is the Latin word for "foolishly" or "stupidly." We can combine the root in English with the Latin word for speech and get stultiloquence, which is defined as "foolish talk" or "babble." We can tell the OED originated in England, as the next definition is "bosh" or "twaddle." A person who is stultiloquent is one who is talking foolishly. Wouldn't it be great to tell someone that their argument is an example of stunning stultiloquence? They no doubt would not know what you are saying. Instead of having a soliquy with yourself or a colloquy with someone, you might just happen to have a stultiloquy with a really dumb person. "His stultitious blather was too much to handle." As you see, the word can be manipulated in almost as many forms as foolishness knows.
The Original Meaning
But stultify has a meaning no longer used that is much more colorful even than these usages. Its origin is in the common law and is defined as "allege or prove to be of unsound mind." It was, however, especially used in a reflexive sense to mean "to allege one's own insantity in order to evade some responsibility." But the common law's dealing with this meaning of stultify is almost as insane as the concept it is trying to describe.
Let's start with the fons (if not the origo) of common law learning: William Blackstone, the first holder of an endowed chair in law at Oxford, and author of the magnificently prominent four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). In his chapter (2.19) on limits of alienation of property, Blackstone talks about the people were were unable to convey property. He confuses us in the first line. "Idiots and persons of nonsane memory, infants, and persons under duress, are not totally disabled either to convey or purchase, but sub modo ("subject to a restriction") only. For their conveyances and purchases are voidable, but not actually void [Let's not try to make that distinction here now, for it allows all kinds of legal chicanery, as Jeremy Bentham would have put it]." He then goes on to say,
"But it has been said that a non compos himself, though he be afterwards brought to a right mind shall not be permitted to allege his own insanity to avoid such grant; for that no man shall be allowed to stultify himself, or plead his own disability."
In other words, Blackstone is saying that the common law will not allow a person currently in sound mind to try to void a previous transaction entered into on the grounds that he was insane when he made the earlier transaction. He won't be able to stultify himself, or plead that he was crazy.
But Blackstone, who usually portrays the common law as almost a divinely inspired system of beautifully consistent interlocking parts and provisions, uncharacteristically says that the "progress of this notion is somewhat curious." He begins with Edward I in the 14th century, and talks about a document saying that "non compos was a sufficient plea to avoid a man's own bond," yet, under Edward III, when the common law was taking shape, "a scruple began to arise whether a man should be permitted to blemish himself by pleading his own insanity." What happened is that someone actually pled his former insanity as a transparent means to try to evade responsibility for an earlier action. The court raised the question of how he could remember so clearly that he was crazy if indeed he had been crazy at the time. Thus, Blackstone says, the "rule" changed.* By the time of Henry VI, in the next century, this new approach of
[*This is also not the place to go into the common law respect for and embrace of precedential thinking or, in Latin, stare decisis. Suffice it to say for now that the doctrine seems to work until you have a factual scenario that makes you want to chose the opposite rule of law, and then you change the rule of law to conform to the new factual scenario. That is what seems to be happening here.]
the court in the time of Edward III now appeared to be the law of the land. "And from these loose authorities which Fitzherbert does not scruple to reject as being contrary to reason, the maxim that a man shall not stultify himself has been handed down as settled law." Phew. Blackstone thus seems to say that even though great authorities reject this approach as being "contrary to reason," it is a firmly fixed proposition. Then, he goes on to say, "though later opinions, feeling the inconvenience of the rule, have in many points endeavored to restrain it."
A Rumination and Conclusion
Is this law?? It reminds me of the scholarly witticism I occasionally heard when I was in the history of religions: "nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship." The most we can say we get from Blackstone on this subject is a word: stultify, used reflexively. We don't get any law, certainly. Perhaps it is because of this history narrated by Blackstone that one of the earliest commentators on American law, James Kent, said in relation to this, "The principle that a man shall not be heard to stultify himself has been properly exploded." Maybe law should be exploded a little more often.
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