Paul L. Caron

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Law Porn, Law School Puffspam, Haiku, and Woodpeckers

Our recent posts on the U.S. News rankings (here and here), which invoked the "law porn" term coined by Pam Karlan (Stanford) to refer to the mountains of law school publicity mailings sent to law profs around the country in futile attempts to influence the U.S. News peer reputation survey, generated a spirited critique by David Giacalone on on the f/k/a blog, which is dedicated to "one-breath poetry & breathless punditry with haikuEsq," for engaging in "bad neology":

Lawyers and law professors are purportedly "wordsmiths." Their word-smithing skills are particularly important when they are playing neologist -- coining new words or nomenclature. Therefore, Prof. Yabut and the f/k/a gang are particularly annoyed to see the phrase "law porn" catching on in legal academia and the blawgisphere. You see, the term refers to materials that are neither "law" nor "porn."...

So, why are otherwise smart folk like Pam Karlan, Brian Leiter, The Conglomerate's Victor Fleischer, TaxProf's Paul Caron, and Dan Markel at PrawfsBlawg, using such a nonsense term? Do they really call everything they don't like (that's slick or glossy?) "porn." (Surely, it doesn't become "porn" merely because there's a lot of it in their mailboxes. Or, is that the connection?) Are they so isolated that the little four-letter word "porn" is titillating for them? Especially catchy? Do they really think "law" and "law school" mean the same thing?...

We've been preaching at this website rather consistently, that neologisms should actually help explain the concept they're naming -- and, at least, shouldn't create more confusion than explanation. It seems to us that we have some pretty good terminology available already to describe large amounts of unsolicited materials: "junk mail" and "spam." We also have a pretty good term for highly exaggerated claims about a product or service: puffery. Law schools are sending out massive quantities of magazines and other forms of prospectus-like promotional materials, which are filled with puffery. Can you dear reader come up with a better name than "law porn" for such items? If it needs to be cute and "neo", maybe "law school puffspam" will do. Or, "puffspectus."

putting holes
in my argument
the woodpecker

Pam Karlan has graciosuly allowed me to share with TaxProf Blog readers her defense of the term "law porn" in an email exchange last night:

When I started using the term "law porn" to refer to the glossy promotional materials from various law schools (and I don't know whether someone else used it first and I just picked it up or whether I was the originator), I was playing off an existing expression -- "food porn." That phrase referred to a kind of breathless, over-the-top journalism about obscure recipes, usually accompanied by arty photos of food shot with annoying lighting techniques and the like. My guess is that the word "porn" was being used there to refer to the titillating way the articles appealed to the senses. Lots of people had been using that term. I was struck by the resemblances between the law school magazines and the foodie publications. Like the food magazines, the law school magazines were characterized by arty photos that often seemed designed to make the buildings or the faculty look vaguely sexy, using come-hither photos. Like the food magazines, the law school magazines used overblown language littered with adjectives designed to convey a sort of excitement. All you need to do is to look at the cover of the current issue of NYU's magazine, with its "Dworkin on Dworkin" cover, and, at least if you're in the legal academy, you'd see what I mean by law porn.

The entire point of calling the magazines "law porn" was to make fun of them, so the fact that the term seems nonsensical to you suggests its utility. At least within the community to which I was directing my remarks -- namely, friends in my faculty lounge and colleagues at other law schools -- my experience has been that the phrase communicates exactly what I intended: people instantly recognize the phenomenon and share my reaction to it.

Mr. Giacalone refuses to yield:

[S]ince your off-the-cuff phrase is now being repeated in the blawgisphere, I am a bit concerned that it will become imbedded -- along with the confusing "porn" suffix -- in a language that continues to lose its commonality and therefore its ability to communicate outside tiny cliques.

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