Serbonian Bog

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Serbonian Bog (Arabic: مستنقع سربون‎) relates to Lake Serbonis (Sirbonis or Serbon) in Egypt, as described by Herodotus. Because sand blew onto it, the Serbonian Bog had a deceptive appearance of being solid land, but was a bog. The term is metaphorically applied to any situation in which one is entangled from which extrication is difficult.

The Serbonian Bog is identified as Lake Bardawil (Sabkhat al Bardawil), on the Sinai Peninsula's north coast. It was described in ancient times as a quagmire in which armies were fabled to be swallowed up and lost.


A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog...
Where armies whole have sunk.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (Book II, lines 592–594).

Milton's description was quoted as the epigraph to the chapter "Markets with non-convex preferences and production" presenting Starr (1969) in Arrow & Hahn (1971, p. 169).

Edmund Burke used it in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):

"The whole of the power obtained by this revolution will settle in the towns among the burghers and the monied directors who lead them. ... Here end all the deceitful dreams and visions of the equality and rights of men. In ‘the Serbonian bog’ of this base oligarchy they are all absorbed, sunk, and lost for ever."[1]

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo used it in a dissenting opinion, stating:

"The attempted distinction between accidental results and accidental means will plunge this branch of the law into a Serbonian Bog."[2]

This statement was echoed by another Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor:

"We recognise that any standard requiring Courts to distinguish causes that are "accidents" from causes that are "occurrences" requires drawing a line, and we realise that "reasonable [people] may differ widely as to the place where the line should fall"... We draw this line today only because the language of Article 17 and 18 requires it, and not because of any desire to plunge into the "Serbonian Bog" that accompanies attempts to distinguish between causes that are accidents and injuries that are accidents... Until Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention is changed by the signatories, it cannot be stretched to impose carrier liability for injuries that are not caused by accidents."[3]

US District Court Judge Joseph E Irenas stated:

Tipping the scales at nearly 157 pages, the complaint hardly comports with the principles of brevity......In addition to being overly long, the complaint is inconsistent and confusing, causing this Court to expend much valuable time in an effort to discern its meaning......There is a strong argument that portions of the complaint fail to comply with the strictures of Fed. R. Civ. and might afford this Court a sufficient basis for dismissal. However, a dismissal without prejudice under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) would only lead to a new filing and needlessly increase the amount of time and money already expended. Thus, the Court will plunge into the complaint's "Serbonian Bog" and deal with the pending Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motions on the merits.[4]

Justice Breyer used it in a dissenting opinion in Texas v. Cobb, 532 U.S. 162, 186 (2001).

Judge William H. Pauley III (2004): "This court declines the City's invitation to wander into a Serbonian bog before a state court has had the opportunity to illuminate the path."[5]

Justice Dimmick used it in his dissenting opinion in State v. Cameron, 674 P.2d 650 (Wash. 1983). "In Crenshaw we began the odyssey. Today's majority opinion now leads us further into the Serbonian bog.

In his published opinion in In re Dow, 213 F. 355 (E.D.S.C. 1914), Judge Smith wrote regarding judicial interpretations of the racial prerequisite in the early U.S. naturalization statute: "All of which foregoing discussion may seem wholly out of place in a reasoned legal opinion as to the construction of a statute, except as illustrating the Serbonian bog into which a court or judge will plunge that attempts to make the words 'white persons' conform to any racial classification."


  1. ^ Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); (pp. 240, 242, Holt, Rinehart and Winston ed. 1965)
  2. ^ Landress v. Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance, 291 U.S. 491, 499 (1934).
  3. ^ Air France v. Saks, 470 U.S. 392, 406 (1985).
  4. ^ Doug Grant et al. v. Greate Bay Casino Corp et al. District of New Jersey Civil Action 97-4291JEI.
  5. ^ James Davis, "Attention Cyclists!"
  • Arrow, Kenneth J.; Hahn, Frank H. (1971). General Competitive Analysis. Advanced textbooks in economics. 12. Amsterdam: North-Holland. pp. 375–401. ISBN 0-444-85497-5. MR 0439057.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Starr, Ross M. (1969), "Quasi-equilibria in markets with non-convex preferences (Appendix 2: The Shapley–Folkman theorem, pp. 35–37)", Econometrica, 37 (1): 25–38, CiteSeerX, doi:10.2307/1909201, JSTOR 1909201CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne. Missing or empty |title= (help)

Coordinates: 31°07′25″N 33°07′06″E / 31.123497°N 33.118286°E / 31.123497; 33.118286