"Choate", as used in American law, means "completed or perfected in and of itself", or "perfected, complete, or certain". It is a controversial word due to its etymology as a back-formation from the old and well-established word inchoate that dates from 1534, meaning "in process of formation". Because the prefix "in-", meaning "not", frequently is used to create antonyms, superficially the relationship of the two words seems to make sense, however, the Latin origin of "inchoate", the verb incohare, begins with a different use of the prefix "in-", wherein the prefix denotes "within". Hence, "inchoate" was not derived from "choate", but the reverse has occurred with apparent misunderstanding of the Latin source, leading to its being challenged as an incongruent word.
The word became the subject of many discussions after United States Supreme Court associate justice Antonin Scalia admonished an attorney for using the word during oral argument at the high court as if it were an antonym of "inchoate", relating that the word did not exist. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary does not list the controversial word other than as a biographical reference to a surname (Rufus Choate 1799–1859, an American jurist) and to an educational institution bearing that proper name from its founders.
American linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer argues that, although faulty, its use among lawyers has been documented since at least 1828, and it was used by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., among other legal luminaries of the 20th century. It is included in most legal dictionaries and lexicons; however, Black's Law Dictionary editor-in-chief Bryan Garner essentially agrees with Scalia. Nonetheless, Garner admits its common acceptance and use within the legal profession. In IRS v. McDermott, 507 U.S. 447 (1993), Scalia quoted a 1954 precedent, "but substituted [no longer inchoate] for choate".
"No longer inchoate" is a phrase used in other contexts as well to convey a more exact meaning. Antonyms listed by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for "inchoate" are "adult", "full-blown", "full-fledged", "mature", "ripe", and "ripened".
"Choate" has been used in several legal contexts, for example, any "choate right is an undefeatable right that is totally valid and ... totally free from encumbrances", and a "choate lien is ... certain and definite". Such a lien is a perfected security interest as used in the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Code and Uniform Commercial Code. In the context of reference to liens, rights in equity, and inchoate crimes, it has been used as the antonym of inchoate.
- Ben Zimmer, James B. Levy, and Debra Cassens Weiss, op. cit., all separately citing Webster's New World Dictionary online. Accessed January 14, 2009.
- Choate at the Free Legal Dictionary website. Accessed January 14, 2009.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary listing for inchoate
- Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Choate: Why does Justice Antonin Scalia hate this word?" The New York Times Magazine Sunday, December 31, 2009. Accessed January 14, 2009.
- James B. Levy, "Justice Scalia admonishes lawyer: 'Choate ain't a word'", Legal Writing Prof Blog, January 13, 2010, found at Law Professors blog and website. Accessed January 14, 2009.
- Debra Cassens Weiss, "U.S. Supreme Court: Law Dictionaries Accept 'Choate,' Although Scalia Has Long Disagreed", January 4, 2010, ABA Journal, found at ABA Journal online. Accessed January 14, 2009.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary listing for Choate
- IRS v. McDermott, 507 U.S. 447 (1993) found at Justia.com website. Accessed January 14, 2009.
- Google.com search results for "no longer inchoate". Accessed January 14, 2009.
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