Using frames to determine ordinary meaning in court cases: the case of “plant” and “vermin”

  • Terrence R Carney Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature, Unisa
Keywords: concept, frame, language and law, ordinary meaning of words, prototypes


The South African judicial system has a variety of ways to determine the ordinary meaning of words, ranging from preceding court cases and academic publications to expert witnesses. However, one of the main resources in the interpretation of ordinary words is a dictionary. Much has already been published on both the use (and abuse) of dictionaries in court cases and the ordinary meaning of words as a legal phenomenon. In continuation of this discourse, I propose that jurists consider using a conceptual approach to the interpretation of ordinary words as opposed to relying overly on dictionaries. One such conceptual approach is the use of frames, which deals with meaning in a way that is similar to Gestalt. In this article, I suggest the use of Barsalou’s (1992) frame structure that may be applied to a contested word in six steps. To illustrate the way Barsalou’s frame functions, I have applied it to two contested words taken from South African court cases. Building a frame in order to determine the ordinary meaning of certain words in court cases proves to be a possible alternative or an additional resource to dictionaries.