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The linguistics search engine that overturned the federal mask mandate

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The COVID-19 pandemic was still raging when a federal judge in Florida made the fateful decision to type “sanitation” into the search bar of the Corpus of Historical American English.

Many parts of the country had already dropped mask requirements, but a federal mask mandate on planes and other public transportation was still in place. A lawsuit challenging the mandate had come before Judge Kathryn Mizelle, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas. The Biden administration said the mandate was valid, based on a law that authorizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to introduce rules around “sanitation” to prevent the spread of disease.

Mizelle took a textualist approach to the question — looking specifically at the meaning of the words in the law. But along with consulting dictionaries, she consulted a database of language, called a corpus, built by a Brigham Young University linguistics professor for other linguists. Pulling every example of the word “sanitation” from 1930 to 1944, she concluded that “sanitation” was used to describe actively making something clean — not as a way to keep something clean. So, she decided, masks aren’t actually “sanitation.”

The mask mandate was overturned, one of the final steps in the defanging of public health authorities, even as infectious disease ran rampant.

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https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/TSMEyGtMISbCpGyZLSnDFLv_73k=/0x0:2040x1360/925x925/filters:focal(857x517:1183x843):format(webp)/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/70950796/acastro_220525_5243_0002.0.jpgIllustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

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Click the link below for the article:

https://www.theverge.com/2022/6/7/23153218/legal-corpus-linguistics-mask-mandate-judges

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