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Why is a brief brief? Kafka quote sought
Posted: 15 September 2008 05:10 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I realize this is more about Kafka than the English language, but I know there are some good researchers here. There is a quote supposedly by Kafka on the Internet - all over the Internet, in fact:

“A lawyer is a person who writes a 10,000-word document and calls it a ‘brief.’”

However, it’s scarcely conceivable that it is originally German, unless the translation was somewhat imaginative. Can anyone pin down who first enshrined this in English? I suppose it may come from a quotation book.

Margaret

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Posted: 15 September 2008 05:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Zirbelnuss - 15 September 2008 05:10 AM

I realize this is more about Kafka than the English language, but I know there are some good researchers here. There is a quote supposedly by Kafka on the Internet - all over the Internet, in fact:

“A lawyer is a person who writes a 10,000-word document and calls it a ‘brief.’”

However, it’s scarcely conceivable that it is originally German, unless the translation was somewhat imaginative. Can anyone pin down who first enshrined this in English? I suppose it may come from a quotation book.

Margaret

Like you, Margaret, I don’t think that the pun works in German.  The adjective and the noun are not the same set of letters, are they? 

But I note many, many sites that credit Kafka for this.  Some more reputable than others.

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Posted: 15 September 2008 06:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The lawyer’s brief and the adjective brief are from two related, but different, Latin words.

The Latin breve meant letter or note and in later usage meant a summary. This was adopted into English to mean an official document or correspondence. This is the basis for the lawyer’s brief.

The Latin brevis meant short. This is the basis for our adjective brief.

As to who first said the quote in question, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Kafka. I think the answer is that it is just one of millions of anonymous lawyer jokes.

[ Edited: 15 September 2008 06:07 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 15 September 2008 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The stupidity involved in this attribution makes me unreasonably angry.  I’m used to seeing things attributed randomly to famous names, but the combination of the facts that 1) “brief” is English and Kafka wrote in German and 2) the feeble joke is completely unlike anything Kafka ever wrote is so infuriating it makes me want to reach out and strangle whoever was responsible for it.  At any rate, you’re unlikely to come up with a source for this, since it’s an obvious joke that’s probably been kicking around for as long as the word has been used in English (as ‘official writing’ from circa 1300, in the legal sense from the early 17th century), and I’ll bet before that they were making similar jokes about Latin breve, the source of the English word.

In googling this, I discovered you’ve been wondering about it for five years!

Edit: Too much research; pipped at the gate.

Further edit:

The adjective and the noun are not the same set of letters, are they?

German uses a completely different word, Schriftsatz; no connection to any word meaning ‘short.’

But I note many, many sites that credit Kafka for this.  Some more reputable than others.

Find me even one reputable site that claims this and I’ll eat all my hats.

[ Edited: 15 September 2008 06:13 AM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 15 September 2008 06:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yes, I realize I’ve been wondering about it for five years too. It relates to my latest entry as well. The reason I reposted it is because I’d like at least to know who introduced it into the language as a Kafka quote. People may have been joking about it since the word ‘brief’ was created, but that was before Kafka was born.

I realize this is a trivial desire, but there it is.

I recently did pin down a pseudo-German term used in English to a particular book of that type (from which languagehat’s book is bound greatly to diverge) quoting words from all over the world. That term was ‘Schlimmbesserung’, which should have been ‘Verschlimmbesserung’.

Margaret

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Posted: 15 September 2008 06:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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German uses a completely different word, Schriftsatz; no connection to any word meaning ‘short.’

Kein Scheiss?

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Posted: 16 September 2008 12:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Thanks to Dave for the information on the two different origins.

I will no doubt abandon the search till I happen on a reference to lawyers in Kafka. There is just an iota of doubt in my mind despite the fact that a) the idea that Kafka could refer to an English term is so far-fetched and b) if he did refer to a term that fitted the bill, it was certainly not Schriftsatz but something less directly equivalent to brief, and the translator would have had to be quite inventive.

I recently came across an article on the frequency of references to Kafka in the US courts, which were most common in the 1990s, and this actually supports the idea that someone just invented the statement and attributed it to Kafka in ignorance.

Margaret

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Posted: 16 September 2008 06:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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the feeble joke is completely unlike anything Kafka ever wrote is so infuriating

The reason for my hedging ("I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Kafka") is that there is an outside chance that Kafka wrote something about longwinded lawyers at some point that was twisted into this attribution. In many false attribution cases the writer does say something vaguely similar to or on the same topic as the false quote.

The reason I reposted it is because I’d like at least to know who introduced it into the language as a Kafka quote.

This too will be impossible to determine. Even if you find a false attribution earlier than all the other false attributions, there is no guarantee that it is the first.

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Posted: 16 September 2008 11:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The reason for my hedging ("I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Kafka") is that there is an outside chance that Kafka wrote something about longwinded lawyers at some point that was twisted into this attribution. In many false attribution cases the writer does say something vaguely similar to or on the same topic as the false quote.

Yes, precisely. And it probably is not by Kafka, but I couldn’t say it’s unlike anything he ever wrote. It would be in the letters or short writings, though.

The reason I reposted it is because I’d like at least to know who introduced it into the language as a Kafka quote.

This too will be impossible to determine. Even if you find a false attribution earlier than all the other false attributions, there is no guarantee that it is the first.

Maybe so, but the OED works in the same way.

Believe me, I thought about these aspects before I posted.

Margaret

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Posted: 17 September 2008 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Maybe so, but the OED works in the same way.

Not really. The editors of the OED do not claim nor expect that their earliest citations are actually the first ones. Nor are they obsessed with getting the absolutely earliest--they like to include the earliest that has been found, but they don’t insist on it. Representative citations that cover the period of use are more important than the absolutely earliest possible use.

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Posted: 17 September 2008 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dave Wilton - 17 September 2008 05:55 AM

Maybe so, but the OED works in the same way.

Not really. The editors of the OED do not claim nor expect that their earliest citations are actually the first ones. Nor are they obsessed with getting the absolutely earliest--they like to include the earliest that has been found, but they don’t insist on it. Representative citations that cover the period of use are more important than the absolutely earliest possible use.

Well, all I meant was that I would like to find who (probably in a book) created this idea. Which I suppose is more obsessive than the OED.

Margaret

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Posted: 17 September 2008 03:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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The point is that finding the absolute first use of a joke like this is a Quixotic task. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never come close.

Besides, the joke is so obvious that it probably has hundreds of independent origins.

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Posted: 17 September 2008 06:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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It’s an obvious play on words, I guess.

From Google Books, at a quick glance only:

1860: //All this is written out into an infernal long paper, called a “brief,” as a legal joke.//

1853: //… for he enclosed the immense document (called a _brief_ on the principle of _lucus a non_, &c- as we used to say at school, or, as we said at college, “Lucus dicitur quod non luceat.” Servius in Virgil, Aen. i. 441) to me ....//

1819: //And here he should observe, that what was in this case called a _brief_, was by no means short; on the contrary, it was a voluminous and expensive article ....//

Kafka was born in 1883.

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Posted: 17 September 2008 11:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Sounds a bit too banal for FK anyway.

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Posted: 17 September 2008 11:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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No, this was a misunderstanding. I did not want to know when the joke originated. I wanted to know the first attribution to Kafka. I imagine that was in a book that was then copied all over the Internet.

Doesn’t matter, though. I had a look in Robert Crumb’s comic on Kafka, but I didn’t find it there.

Btw, not everything Kafka uttered was non-banal!

Margaret

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Posted: 18 September 2008 06:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Zirbelnuss - 17 September 2008 11:39 PM

I imagine that was in a book that was then copied all over the Internet.

Back in the olden days of the internet (pre-World Wide Web), when you logged into a Unix system, you were often greeted by a Quote of the Day - there’s even an internet protocol called qotd (on port 17) to deliver these messages from a server (though it’s hard to find a server still using it).  In Usenet (a pre-WWW bulletin board system) days (and I think even dial-up bulletin boards), it was popular to have a humorous quote/quip in your signature, many of which were made up jokes (a classic example: “To be is to do. - Socrates / To do is to be. - Sartre / Do be do be do. - Sinatra” - insert your favorite classical scholar, philosoper, and/or crooner and you’ll probably find it like that) As you can imagine, there was a large demand for such funny quips so a great deal of (mis)information on who said what was disseminated wildly with little regard for “truth”.

On another board, we recently discussed the case of quotes found all over the internet from a prominent recent (possibly still alive) philosopher (13,000+ google hits on his name) .  The only credible evidence of his existence found by the board members so far is a documentary film listed on IMDB and a one page site by the distributer of the (unavailable) film.  He is supposed to have written 2 influential books (which have escaped being listed in the Library of Congress).  He is interviewed in the documentary by a famous author and biographer (who has also managed to avoid being listed the Library of Congress).

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