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Watermark: Look it up

In water law, as in much else, definitions matter. A definition is a formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word or phrase. Definitions set cornerstones and boundaries; they reveal order and bring clarity; they banish the vague and ambiguous. Definitions let us know where we are in the world. The law, which is always formal and rarely clear, relies on all sorts of definitions to assign subjects into categories and classes. A judge in chambers, tangled on some point of law or fact, may reach for any reasonable dictionary to aid justice. Sometimes this works out fine.

water  n. 1 a: the liquid that descends from the clouds as rain, forms streams, lakes, and seas, and is a major constituent of all living matter and that when pure is an odorless, tasteless, very slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H20 which appears bluish in thick layers, freezes at 0 degrees Celsius and boils at 100 degrees Celsius, has a maximum density at 4 degrees Celsius and a high specific heat, is feebly ionized to hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, and is a poor conductor of electricity and a good solvent

So says Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.), which I chose at random from a dozen other dictionaries on the reference shelf at the Kingston Library. The full entry extends to 32 sub-headings over nearly half a page—far too much to print here—but this opening phrase is instructive. It’s also inaccurate, disjointed and oddly written, even if you overlook Merriam-Webster’s practice of leaving off periods at the end of sentences. But it’s somehow fitting that water’s definition is as elusive and transient as the substance itself.

Our dictionary defines water as “the liquid that descends from the clouds as rain.” (We learn in elementary school that water flows readily through solid, liquid and gaseous states, and descends from the clouds as anything it pleases, but we’ll let that go.) It mistakenly implies that water falls to earth from some celestial spigot, the source of which, apparently, is heaven. Rather, the water that fills the clouds belongs to the planet. Water is a finite resource; its total volume has been the same since water appeared on earth. It simply goes up and comes down in an endless whirling dance between earth and sky. Any useful definition of water should say so.

For the record, the total amount of water in the atmosphere makes up a ridiculously small percentage of all the water on Earth: the US Geological Survey puts it as a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. (You can search “USGS how much water is there on earth.”) Somehow I had always imagined that the clouds held oceans more water than we’re told they do. 

The phrase is disjointed because it begins with a statement of atmospherics, proceeds to a biological feature, romps through the rules of physics, and ends in a heap on a chemical property. A rule of good writing is to arrange like things with like, especially when there are 31 more sub-headings to fill. The phrase is oddly written because of that “feebly ionized.” Feebleness is a diminished condition, a lowering of a standard with the prospect of regaining it. Perhaps the editors meant “weakly” or “loosely” instead. 

So why do I criticize a dictionary definition?  What’s the point in mincing the word choices of professional editors? Two reasons. First, the full definition (you can look it up) is notable for what it doesn’t say about water: that it is heavy to lift, that it is difficult to contain and usually impossible to measure, that it is always moving, that it is strong-willed, powerful, evasive and cruel. Most important, neither Merriam-Webster’s nor any of the other dictionaries I checked ever get around to mentioning water’s single most important feature: that it is absolutely necessary to all life on earth. (The definition’s second clause says only that living things contain water, not that they all require it.)  Without water there would be no life, no dictionaries, no judges, no editors. You’d think a definition would mention a little thing like that.                         

The second reason concerns our harried judge on the bench who searches for meaning in a dictionary. Trying to divine water by reading a definition is like trying to find heaven by looking up through the bottom of a beer glass. The view is tinted and the subject uncertain. As more water conflicts make their way to the courts, more judges will have to learn about water. All of them will visit their dictionaries. Blurred definitions leave the judge better informed but no wiser. As a lawyer, I’ve got to absorb the definitions, too, especially the blurry ones. The judge might need help filling in the blanks.

Michael Nunziata practices water law in New York State.