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Suppose that a law uses a somewhat uncommon word in an incorrect way, and it is clear from the context that the author's intended meaning is the opposite of what the word actually means. In this scenario, will a court applying the law interpret the law as the author clearly intended, even if that means contradicting the actual wording?

This is specifically inspired by the Oklahoma furry bill, but I'm interested in general principles, and not only in Oklahoma. That proposed law would prohibit public school students from engaging in, among other things, "anthropomorphic behavior commonly known as furries." It is clear that the author intends to prohibit students from acting as animals. However, the word "anthropomorphic" actually means "human-like"; if it only banned "anthropomorphic behavior," then the bill would actually ban students from engaging in any normal human activity.

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    The short answer to the headline question is "Yes". I'll see if I can find some examples for an answer.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 25 at 0:55
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    While the question is interesting, I don't think anthropomorphic means exactly what you think it means, it explicitly does not apply to humans. Thus the law seems pretty clear to me that it prohibits acting as a "humanized non-human".
    – pipe
    Jan 25 at 13:05
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    Agree with @pipe, anthropomorphism applies exclusively to non-human entities. A human cannot engage in anthropomorphic behavior because they actually are human - only a human pretending to be a non-human (who is in turn acting with human-like qualities) could be anthropomorphic. Normal human behavior is not anthropomorphic, as that would imply it merely resembles, but is not actually, human. Jan 25 at 13:42
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    Realted: law.stackexchange.com/a/61071/3312. E.g. "give him the special treatment" will mean something different coming from of a kitchen chef than from a mafia boss. Jan 25 at 14:37
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    @komodosp it is indeed a real bill proposed in the Oklahoma legislature, although it is largely considered a joke bill. It has not passed, and it is unlikely that it ever will.
    – Someone
    Jan 25 at 15:24

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Will courts interpret words to mean the opposite of what they actually mean if that is clearly the author's intent?

A lot of work is being done by the word "actually" in your question. Under the modern approach to statutory interpretation, a word does not have an "actual" meaning outside of the context of its use.

The "modern approach" to interpretation

Under the purposive approach (also called the "modern principle" or "modern approach"):

the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.

Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 27, para. 21.

"The ordinary meaning is not the same as the dictionary definition, as the ordinary meaning will vary with the context" (Lake Country (District) v. Kelowna Ogopogo Radio Controllers Association, 2013 BCSC 1971, at para. 18, citing Ruth Sullivan, Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes, 5th ed (Markham, ON: LexisNexis Canada, 2008), p. 27).

The ordinary meaning of a word or a group of words is not their dictionary meaning but the meaning that would be understood by a competent language user upon reading the words in their immediate context.

Ruth Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation, p. 61

However, even the ordinary meaning is not the end of interpretation. The first impression or ordinary meaning must be tested against the larger context and the legislative intent.

the plain meaning of the text is not in itself determinative and must be tested against the other indicators of legislative meaning — context, purpose, and relevant legal norms. The apparent clarity of the words taken separately does not suffice because they “may in fact prove to be ambiguous once placed in their context. The possibility of the context revealing a latent ambiguity such as this is a logical result of the modern approach to interpretation.”

La Presse inc. v. Quebec, 2023 SCC 22, para. 23.

None of this is simple, and judges even on the highest courts may disagree about the correct interpretation of a statute.

Courts may correct clear drafting errors when interpreting a statute

Applying the above approach to interpretation, courts may correct clear drafting errors. See e.g. Morishita v Richmond (Township), 67 D.L.R. (4th) 609 (B.C.C.A.), where the Court of Appeal interpreted "section 4" to mean "section 5."

the reference to s. 4 makes no sense at all ... I think the only rational conclusion is that the reference to s. 4 in the present s. 8 is a mistake. The section intended to be referred to is s. 5.

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  • This is an excellent and very "reasonable" answer, but surely there are hard legal meanings of some words that we don't budge on, right? How and where is the line drawn? Why do we employ attorneys to add a half dozen synonyms to each key word on a contract to remove every possible ambiguity if we could simply interpret meaning and intent by the context? Why push back on me so hard on my "ordinary" use of the term "reasonable" (as it applies to a jury) in our previous discussion? While it might seem like it, I am not trying to pick another fight, but I see much inconsistency in this... Jan 25 at 17:37
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    @MichaelHall I'd argue that words have hard legal meanings if and only if a specific relevant statute includes a definition for that word - which often is the case for all the key terms where the legislator wishes to explicitly specify the intended meaning and boundaries.
    – Peteris
    Jan 25 at 23:54
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    @MichaelHall In addition to Peteris' comment, the meanings of words (within a given context) will be narrowed over time by the principle of precedent. "Why do [do] attorneys [remove] every possible ambiguity if we could simply interpret meaning and intent by the context" - because there is no such thing as "simply interpret", even given a context. Also, adding extra words is the very thing which establishes the context in the first place.
    – JBentley
    Jan 26 at 13:02

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