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A Supreme Court justice said 4 words in American Sign Language. Here's why that's awesome.

On Tuesday, April 19, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said, "Your motion is granted" in court. Sound typical? It's not.

Because for the first time in U.S. history, these words were spoken from the Supreme Court bench in American Sign Language.

To most people, that probably doesn't sound like a big deal. After all, it's just one little phrase, right? And it's not like he said something cool like "Awkward turtle" or "My hovercraft is full of eels" either.


He just said a thing that judges normally say in court.

Chief Justice Roberts. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

But for the millions of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing — including the 12 lawyers who were being sworn into the Supreme Court bar that day — it means a lot.

It wasn't until 1982 that a deaf lawyer was given an opportunity to argue in front of the Supreme Court. More than three decades later, there are around 200 deaf lawyers working in America. By contrast, licensed lawyers make up about 0.4% of the total U.S. population.

“Some deaf or hard-of-hearing lawyers doubt that they can actually practice law," Howard Rosenblum, one of the lawyers who was sworn in that day, told the Washington Post. “But the real practice is based on intellect and deaf people have that in spades.”

“I think the biggest challenge has been to get people to give me the opportunity,” added Teresa Curtin, another deaf lawyer sworn in Chief Justice Roberts.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

And that illuminates a real problem in our culture: The assumption that people with physical disabilities are somehow less qualified to use their minds.

There's another issue, too, with the way we tend to dismiss those who struggle to communicate in standard American English. But whereas we're willing to learn bits and phrases of other languages to help us move through the world — who doesn't know how to say "hello" or "where's the bathroom?" in at least one other language? — we're much less accommodating of communication barriers like deafness.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

It's easy to assume that all deaf people have a supernatural ability to read lips, for example. But lipreading is a pretty ineffective form of communication. Even if you think you're doing a good thing by speaking slowly and oh-ver-ee-nun-see-ate-ing eh-vuh-ree sill-uh-bull, most lip-readers can still only understand about 30% of what's being said.

American Sign Language, on the other hand, is actually an incredibly efficient way to connect with people. It's clear, it's concise, and there are less complicated verb conjugations to worry about. You don't have to worry about talking over someone in order to be heard. You can communicate with anyone in a crowd as long as they're in eyesight, and that's pretty cool!

Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images.

Deaf people, like anyone else, are capable of amazing things. But if we're going to make them find their way in the hearing world, the least we can do is talk to them on their terms.

By speaking those four simple words in ASL, Chief Justice Roberts demonstrated a willingness to embrace the Deaf community and meet them where they are. Instead of sitting back and watching as they climbed across the hearing barriers, that one simple signing action communicated something much more than words. It said, "I see you, and I acknowledge that you matter just as much as anyone else."

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The word "jumbo" literally comes from an elephant.

The evolution of language is fascinating, and the etymology of specific words can be a fun little trip through human history as well as human creativity.

Many English words are derived from Greek and Latin, but other European languages make up a good chunk of our language as well. The roots of some words can surprise us, and so can the way certain words came to be. And in some cases, what we don't know can be just as surprising as what we do.

Enjoy diving into the history of 15 words we use every day.

1. Dog

Dog is often one of the first words babies learn to say, and it's one of the first kids learn to spell. But don't let its simplicity fool you. This word is truly a mystery.

The word "dog" comes from dogca, a very rarely used Old English word, but how we started using it as our everyday name for canines, no one knows. "Its origin remains one of the great mysteries of English etymology," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Even more interestingly, no one knows the origins of the Spanish word for "dog" ("perro"), nor do they know the origins of the Polish ("pies") or Serbo-Croatian ("pas") words for our canine friends, either. Who knew dogs were so enigmatic?

2. Nightmare

It's obvious where "night" comes from in "nightmare," but what about "mare"? Surely, were not referring to a female horse here.

Horse, no. But female, yes. Female goblin, to be precise. In Old English, mare means "incubus, nightmare, monster; witch, sorcerer." And "nightmare" started being used around 1300 to refer to "an evil female spirit afflicting men (or horses) in their sleep with a feeling of suffocation." Yikes. Thankfully, now it's just any old bad dream.

3. Jumbo

We've all seen animals named for words with certain meanings, but here we have the opposite. The word "jumbo" came from a large elephant who lived at the London Zoo. Zookeeper Anoshan Anathjeysari named him "Jumbe," the Swahili word for "chief." But his status as one of the largest African bush elephants in Europe in the 19th century caused his nickname, Jumbo, to become synonymous with enormousness.

muscular man exercising

Run, little mouse, run.

Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

4. Muscle

The Latin word musculus means "little mouse." As hilarious as it sounds, they thought the movement of muscles looked like little mice scurrying under the skin, hence the origin. Kinda ick to think about, but also logical, so here we are.

5. Quarantine

Ah, a word with which we are all familiar, thanks to COVID-19. But do we know what it really means?

If you understand roots, you may guess that "quar" might have something to do with the number four, and you'd be right. In Latin, quadraginta means a period of 40 days. Our usage of "quarantine" to mean isolation from others comes from the Venetian policy of ships coming into port from plague-stricken countries in the late 1300s to remain in port for 40 days before letting people off. The usage to mean any period of time in isolation began being used in the 1600s.

6. Mortgage

Most of us grow up not really understanding what a mortgage is until we buy our first house, but even then, most of us don't know what the word literally means. It comes from Old French, mort gaige, literally meaning "death pledge."

HAHAHAHAHA. Death pledge. Mortgage. That's funny.

However, it doesn't mean you're tied to the debt til you die, even if it feels like it. The death part means the deal dies either when you pay it off or when you become unable to pay. Doesn't really change the fact that it feels a bit like you're signing your life away when you buy a house, though.

ball of yarn

What does a ball of yarn have to do with "clue"?

Photo by Philip Estrada on Unsplash

7. Clue

Oddly enough, "clue" comes from a misspelling (or alternate spelling from before standardized spelling was a thing) of the word "clew," meaning a ball of yarn.

The word itself comes from German, but its usage points to the Greek myth in which Ariadne gives Theseus a ball (or clew) of yarn to help him escape the labyrinth. Now we use it to refer to anything that helps us solve a mystery.

8. Nice

The word "nice" is nice and simple, right? It's the most basic word we use for "pleasant," a definitively positive word. But this seemingly simple word has been through quite the trek in its etymology.

From the Latin nescius, meaning "ignorant, unaware," it was used to mean "timid" or"faint-hearted" before the year 1300. A couple hundred years later, it had morphed to "fussy, fastidious" or "dainty, delicate." In another 100 years, it changed to "precise, careful." Tack on another few hundred years and we're at "agreeable, delightful," and from there it was only short jaunt to "kind, thoughtful."

What a nice journey from insult to compliment.

9. Shampoo

I would have bet money that the word "shampoo" was French in origin, but nope. It's Hindi, coming from the term champo, and the original meaning was "to massage, rub and percuss the surface of (the body) to restore tone and vigor." It's only been used to refer specifically to lathering and washing out strands of hair or carpet since the mid 1800s.

10. Torpedo

Literally Latin for a stingray. As in the marine animal. That comes from the root word torpere, which means "be numb," since a ray's sting can numb you. It doesn't become the word for a propelled underwater explosive until the last couple hundred years.

11. Ambidextrous

We know that left-handedness was seen negatively throughout much of human history, but even the word that means "able to use both hands equally" has a right-handed bias baked into it. The medieval Latin ambidexter literally meansliterally means "right-handed on both sides."

Isn't English fun?