Fri 27 January 2023 2:54, UK

One TikToker’s subtitle transcription of senator John Kennedy and Charnelle Bjelkengren’s exchange during her confirmation hearing yesterday includes a fatal typo – “percosivism” instead of “purposivism” – meaning it might be hard for some people to understand why the video itself is having such an impact.

John Kennedy’s questioning of Biden judicial nominee has gone veritably viral. The TikTok clip of it mentioned above has racked up more than a million views in a day.

“Can’t believe it?” reads the overlaid text. 

Here’s what its subtitles should say instead of “percosivism,” and what various legal bodies understand the meaning and correct pronunciation of the word “purposivism” to be.

Photo by BONNIE CASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

What is the definition of ‘percosivism’, also known as purposivism? Meaning explained amid TikTok typo

TikTok user6361280139925’s video upload of the exchange senator John Kennedy and Biden judicial nominee Charnelle Bjelkengren shared mistakenly transcribes the word “purposivism” as “percosivism,” meaning anyone searching for a definition of the latter will likely come a cropper. 

The video has picked up almost 55K likes in a day. And 1.2M views. Both of which mean it’s important to get the transcription right.

There is no such thing as “percosivism,” so there’s no point in searching for a definition for it online – it has no meaning. Purposivism, however, is very much a thing.

In a legal context, it has to do with the difference between the “letter” of a law, and the “spirit” of that law. A purposive interpretation of a legal statute “maintains that the legal effect of a statute should be determined by the objective purpose of the statute,” according to Legal Theory Blog.

Purposivism vs textualism 

You might see people contrasting purposivism (or, a purposive interpretation of laws) with textualism

Purposivists traditionally argue that, because congress passes laws in order to achieve something – i.e., with a particular purpose in mind – judges should prioritise the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, if the two come into conflict.

Textualists, meanwhile, have argued that the constitutional duty of a federal judge is to follow laws to the letter. The literal meaning is sacrosanct. If the law says it, it shall be so; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

A key case in the history of purposivism was Church of the Holy Trinity vs United States. It happened in 1892, when the Supreme Court decided that a law prohibiting importing foreigners to “perform labor or service of any kind in the United States” did not apply to a church importing a particular British pastor. If you can understand why, you may be a purposivist.

Why the spike in people searching for a definition of/meaning for the word ‘percosivism’?

On the Internet, word travels fast. 

So it is that a TikTok video’s incorrect transcription of senator Kennedy’s question, “Do you know what purposivism is?” as “Do you know what percosivism is?” has led almost instantaneously to a sharp rise in Google searches for the meaning of, or definition for, the word “percosivism.”

Which might, among those who have watched that particular version of the video, have led to some confusion over what all the fuss is about. 

In the video, Bjelkengren says that in her entire legal career, she has not faced “that precise question.”

Of course, if you believe the transcription, it is completely natural for her to have never faced that precise question, because percosivism isn’t a thing with a meaning or definition for her to have come across.

Photo by SHAWN THEW/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

What has the reaction to it all been?

Purposivism exists outside of legal contexts, too. Merriam-Webster defines it as “any of various theories of nature or of human and animal behavior that regard purpose or conscious intent as a basal fact.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s the sort of word that just anyone knows. Many social media users commenting on the proceedings have said this is the first they’ve heard of the term.

“I’ll admit I’d never heard the term ‘purposivism,’” writes one. But they still expected a judicial nominee to be able to define Articles II and V of the US Constitution. If only in basic terms.

Another has encouraged others to recognise that she is “not a constitutional scholar”; the pressure of the setting is also worth taking into account, they argue. “I can understand going blank in that setting.”

“I can guarantee that she read up on Article V, Article II and purposivism after that display,” they wrote.

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