By Josh Tatum, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP and Ruth Johnson, Indiana Public Defender Council
In January 2022 when I (Josh) took the reins as chair of the IndyBar’s Appellate Practice Section, the Executive Committee underwent a friendly but notable transition: the “uh-mee-kuss” committee became the “AM-uh-kuss” committee. That’s because my good friend Ruth Johnson, 2021 section chair, and I stubbornly say the Latin word for friend differently.
A similarly friendly shift came to the U.S. Supreme Court on the first Monday in October 2022 when Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson replaced Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Breyer’s pronunciation—“a-MY-kuss”—is, according to the ABA Journal, British. The article even implies that Justice Breyer’s wife, daughter of a British viscount, may have influenced this. Despite clerking for Breyer, Justice Jackson says “AM-uh-kuss.”
It didn’t take long for Breyer’s pronunciation to attract some rather unfriendly attention after arriving at the Supreme Court. Long-time time Court reporter Tony Mauro noted that an arguing lawyer picked up the then-new justice’s pronunciation, Mauro wrote, “the hapless lawyer … adopted the same, clearly incorrect pronunciation, just to be accommodating.” William Safire even dedicated a 1997 column to Breyer’s style.
As a student at a law school in the South, I became fascinated by a handful of foreign-language terms adopted in American law. While at Vandy, none was more interesting to me than voir dire. Southern lawyers almost invariably say “vohr dIr” even though its old-French origin would suggest “vwah deer.” In fact, in my in-depth Internet research, I found an article from a Georgia lawyer explaining even though the “correct pronunciation is ‘vwar deer,’ … here in the south we say voir dire.” Obviously. During my summers working in Indiana, I never pinned down the prevailing pronunciation (this was admittedly not my highest priority).
It wasn’t until my days as a law clerk watching arguments at the Indiana Supreme Court in 2008–10 that I focused on amicus (italicized because I’m referring to a word as a word, not because of it’s Latin origin—most authorities agree both amicus and voir dire have been Anglicized enough to justify roman type; see “By the Way” here.). I learned of at least three pronunciations: “uh-mee-kuss,” “AM-uh-kuss,” and “a-MY-kuss.”
I’m an Indiana native and a seventh-generation Hoosier, but I’m a first-generation lawyer. So I sought to avoid looking like a fool while also coming across as pretentious. I looked no further than my boss at the time, then-Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. I studied his example: “AM-uh-kuss” it was! (See the 4:50 mark of the 2008 oral argument in Cooper Indus. v. South Bend and, to show it’s not a fluke, the 2:15 mark of the 2010 argument of Indianapolis v. Armour.) I’m convinced this is the educated but genuinely Hoosier pronunciation. I don’t care that Bryan Garner says Ruth’s way is “traditional and predominant.” At least he admits, “Branding the variant [“AM-uh-kuss”] an error would be silly and pretentious.”
I agree with my friend Josh that his pronunciation is the predominant Hoosier pronunciation I most often hear. Although not born and raised here, I have lived in Indiana for over 45 years, and I embrace all things Hoosier especially when making apple butter, persimmon cookies or paw paw pudding. But I stubbornly hold onto saying “uh-mee-kus” and when discussing football “Da Bears.”
As published on the IndyBar website.