US Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s reference to novelist David Foster Wallace proves he’s a SNOOT

Typically particular about language and literature.
Typically particular about language and literature.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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“We’re now like David Foster Wallace’s fish. We’re surrounded by the rule of law, it’s in the fabric of our lives,” said US Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch at his Senate confirmation hearings today (March 21).

What the judge means, he explained in a 2014 article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, is that the law’s so much a part of American life that people don’t even see it functioning and only focus on its failure. Titled “Law’s Irony,” that article also mentioned DFW’s fish “oblivious to the life-giving waters in which it swims.” It’s a reference to wisdom the writer shared in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College in which he revealed to graduates that the hardest things for people to see are what surrounds us. Like fish unaware of water, we’re oblivious to what’s most pervasive.

Gorsuch is not alone among prestigious legal practitioners in his admiration of DFW. The late justice Antonin Scalia once lunched with the writer and told the Wall Street Journal (paywall), ”He was a very personable fellow. As co-SNOOTS, we got along very well.”

The innovative novelist and grammar master coined the term “SNOOT,” meaning “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time,” in an article for Harper’s magazine titled “Tense Present, Democracy, English, and the wars over usage.” It describes people obsessed with language and usage—simply put, word nerds.

DFW and justice Scalia were introduced by a famously SNOOTy friend in common, Bryan Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and a co-author of two books on legal writing with Scalia. In 2012, The New Yorker called Garner possibly “the world’s premier authority on grammar and usage in English.” He and Scalia discussed Wallace’s writing a lot, prompted by the novelist’s 2001 Harper’s essay circulating among the justices.

It may seem surprising to some that judges love Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. His writing is challenging conceptually and textually—layered, irreverent, bursting with words and ideas. Even literary types have trouble getting through the 1,079 pages about American addiction and entertainment and the pursuit of happiness that comprise his daunting tragicomic 1996 novel, Infinite Jest

Judges may not superficially seem like literary types, but writing is at the heart of their work. At the highest levels—like the US Supreme Court—justices are in fact among the most influential living writers. Underneath their black robes, some may even harbor a longing to write novels (Massachusetts probate court judge Robert Grant in the early 20th century even balanced both jobs).

Further, judges love language. They are professional textual analysts and novelists really couldn’t ask for a better audience for their work—members of the judiciary are better equipped to delight in a precise turn of phrase than most as they spend a lot of time analyzing texts. Who is better suited to appreciate the perfect placement of punctuation than a judge? Not even a grammarian. After all, an Oxford comma, or lack thereof, has been known to decide a case.

Words can divide people of course. But lawyerly types tend to be united in their love of language and literature; hence their high tolerance for tedious linguistic analyses that few enjoy—and perhaps for Wallace’s complex and difficult writing. According to Scalia, other SCOTUS SNOOTS include justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former justices Harry Blackmun and David Souter.

Gorsuch, if appointed to the high court, will join this line of language-and-grammar-obsessed justices. He’s known for his lively judicial writing style, just like Scalia, and is considered to be cut from the same cloth as the late justice. That makes Gorsuch not only a textualist, but a bona fide SNOOT.