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18 April 2006 @ 16:53
On the non-intersection of the bovine and vehicular ilks  

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.

—Ogden Nash, "The cow"

Can an airplane or a rowboat
Be a vehicle in law?
If we end dispute with the Latin root,
Will the critics find some flaw?

—G. Brainerd Currie, "Is a raft of logs a vessel?"

The people who write and interpret the law have a funny relationship with words. I do not think it would occur to most of us—even us linguists, who by profession ask peculiar questions about language—to wonder whether a cow is a motor vehicle. And yet that is the question Judge Cynthia Westcott Rice of the Ohio Court of Appeals had to answer in a case (Mayor v. Wedding, 2003-Ohio-6695) mentioned in recent posts by Bill Poser on Language Log and by Heidi Harley on HeiDeas.

Now, if I wanted to know whether the English phrase motor vehicle could felicitously be used to describe a cow, I would consult the intuitions of some set of native speakers of English (possibly consisting of just me, depending on how definitive an answer I wanted and how confident I was feeling). If different people gave me different answers, then I would shrug my shoulders and conclude that the lexical semantics of the term motor vehicle varies from one idiolect to another.

Judge Rice did not have the luxury of shrugging; the parties to the dispute she and her colleagues were called upon to resolve had already taken opposite positions on the question, and there was money at stake. The Mayors, tootling along in a car, had run into a stray cow, belonging to Wedding, that had wandered out onto the highway. Since Wedding had, for some reason, not thought to take out liability insurance on the cow, the Mayors attempted to collect recovery from their insurance company under the "Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist" provision of their policy. The insurance company, being, as insurance companies generally are, reluctant to pay up, maintained that the cow was not a motor vehicle, and that therefore any consequences of the Mayors' collision with it were not the insurance company's problem.

Rice's opinion relies not on linguistic fieldwork, but (in part) on the authority of the American Heritage Dictionary; she writes:

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “motor vehicle” as, “a self-propelled, wheeled conveyance that does not run on rails.” Id. at 817. A cow is self-propelled, does not run on rails, and could be used as a conveyance; however, there is no indication in the record that this particular cow had wheels. Therefore, it was not a motor vehicle and thus was not a “land motor vehicle” as defined in the policy.

The trouble with dictionaries is that they don't always get it right. As Poser points out, the AHD's definition, although it correctly rules out cows, does so for the wrong reason, and in doing so also rules out many other things that most people would consider motor vehicles:

In my judgement, and I believe that of most people, vehicles such as snowmobiles, tanks, and bulldozers are motor vehicles even though they lack wheels. Furthermore, adding wheels to a cow would not make it a motor vehicle.

According to Poser, the reason a cow isn't a motor vehicle is that it hasn't got a motor. I'm not so sure about this. What, exactly, is a motor? If we ask the AHD, we find that a motor is (in the first sense listed) "something, such as a machine or an engine, that produces or imparts motion." Well, a cow does have something that makes it go; we've already established that cows are self-propelled. But we've also already established that we can't necessarily rely on the AHD's definitions. Furthermore, the fact that the AHD (like many other dictionaries) has a separate entry for motor vehicle indicates that the meaning of the phrase may not be wholly predictable from the meanings of its component words.

Fortunately, I think we can answer the question by relying only on the definition of land motor vehicle that appears in the insurance policy itself. This is very helpful, because it means that it doesn't matter whether that definition accords with native speaker intuitions or common sense or anything of the sort: the definition in the policy is what the Mayors and their insurance company have agreed that they mean when they talk about "land motor vehicles." Here is the portion of the policy's definition that is quoted in Rice's opinion:

  1. “Land motor vehicle” means a motor vehicle designed for operation on land, but does not include any vehicle or equipment:
    1. operated on rails or crawler treads;
    2. designed mainly for use off public roads, other than snowmobiles, while not on public roads;
    3. while used as a residence or premises;
    4. that is used in general construction work and not designed for or employed in general highway transportation; or
    5. that is farm machinery, other than farm machinery designed for use on public roads.

(Note, by the way, that (2b) specifically mentions snowmobiles, which supports Poser's claim that a motor vehicle need not have wheels.)

The crucial word here is designed. Cows are not designed. Cows evolved.1 Ergo, a cow is not a "land motor vehicle" according to the policy's definition.

Not convinced? Here's a Gedankenexperiment: Suppose I were to design and build a machine that was, in virtually all observable respects, identical to a cow. It would have a motor, of sorts, that would convert the chemical energy in grass into kinetic energy; waste material would be emitted in smelly brown blobs. It would, of course, move on four artiodactylic legs, not on wheels. It would moo, or perhaps low. It might even, if I were a very clever designer indeed, produce milk. I don't think I could possibly be clever enough to make it capable of bearing calves, but, while it has been argued that a barren cow and a fertile one are two different animals, they are nonetheless both cows.

Now, suppose that the Mayors crashed their car into my underinsured robo-cow. Should they not have a much better case for collecting from their insurance company in Mayor v. Pheevr than they had in Mayor v. Wedding? Perhaps not under this particular policy, because the insurance company could argue that robo-cow was "farm machinery" not designed for use on public roads, but as a more general proposition, doesn't robo-cow answer to the description of "motor vehicle" much better than any natural cow? Design—artifice—is crucial. In fact, I think Poser and I are really on the same track here; his assertion that cows do not have motors seems to depend on the assumption that the word motor refers to a machine, and not to a biological structure.

1. Admittedly, there has been considerable artificial selection involved in the evolution of modern domestic cattle. The effect of this human intervention, though, has not been so great as to constitute design of the entire animal; we've only tweaked a few of the features.

Vizcacha: Cow-teatchillyrodent on 18. April, 2006 14:44 (UTC)
So, ID-iots would argue in favor of the Mayors?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 18. April, 2006 14:59 (UTC)

I think they might have to, if they were going to be logically consistent, which is not really one of their strong points. Intelligent Design doesn't really offer a good way of distinguishing a cow from a motor vehicle, unless you fall back on the AHD's wheels position.

Vizcachachillyrodent on 18. April, 2006 15:09 (UTC)
Apropos of nothing, I'm picturing a Trojan cow, motoring to the road on its tank tracks.
Fearsclavefearsclave on 19. April, 2006 04:43 (UTC)
*starts twitching uncontrollably*
I just flashed back to this one file I worked on, years ago in private practice, where a lot(of money, in the form of the client's regulatory compliance budget having to increase) rode on whether recreational vehicles were considered motor vehicles for purposes of the Consumer Protection Act (Quebec) and its extended warranty provisions.

One analogy I use to describe some of what I do to my techie friends (I'm now in-house at a tech company) is that whereas they have to write code for computers, I have to write code for large semi-organized groups of people (and that draft statement of work my techie friends just asked me to review? Failed to compile).

There are days when that task starts sounding like "herding cats" or "leading monkeys in hell".