The Spirit of the Law vs. The Letter of the Law

Posted by Sauerkraut on March 10, 2002

In Reply to: The Spirit of the Law vs. The Letter of the Law posted by Word Camel on March 10, 2002

: I have always understood that people who behave according to the letter of the law maybe technically correct, but may miss the point or spirit of why the law was made in the first place.

: I have used the phrase, "he's sticking to the letter of the law" in a disparaging way. However, I have found people I've met here in the US using the same phrase in exactly the opposite sense. Also, when they say he's acting in the spirit of the law, they mean it in a negative way.

My usage of the term matches your understanding, and I'd be interested if you could give a reference to the opposite use.

When I attended George Washington University (Washington D.C.) in the 60s, most students dressed for class in what we would now call business casual. In an attempt to upgrade the students' appearence the Administration decreed that male students must wear a shirt and tie to classes. Since GWU is known for it's excellence as a University that teaches law, the students complied with the letter of the law and began wearing tattered T-shirts - with a tie - to class. They also abandonded socks with their shoes, and wore ragged cut-off shorts.

The Administration soon realized that dress codes could be written with ever increasing stipulations that students would circumvent, and repealled the dress code.

The students went back to their their normal decent attire, and common sense ruled once again.