Last month, the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th district rejected an appeal on the grounds that spiders are insects. Now, I’m not a lawyer or a judge, but I am a biologist, and I have thoughts. But before we get to those, a quick poll:
OK, on to the case. A couple in Alabama made a claim on their homeowner’s insurance because their home was “infested” with brown recluse spiders.* The insurance company denied coverage because the policy excluded loss due to “birds, vermin, rodents, or insects”. The couple sued, arguing that spiders aren’t insects – and lost, and then lost again on appeal. So, legally, it seems that (at least in the jurisdiction of the 11th Circuit, viz., Alabama, Florida, and Georgia**), spiders are insects.
Now, you may protest (as I did) that this is foolish on its face: spiders aren’t insects! So what was the court thinking (or, alternatively, what was it on?) Well, I was prepared to be horrified by the display of ignorance, but I read the whole decision and ended up… somewhat less but still a little horrified, and also intrigued, and also feeling some admiration. So read on.
The whole decision rest on its opening sentence: “Alabama law requires courts to construe the terms of an insurance policy according to their ordinary meaning” (emphasis mine). By a word’s “ordinary meaning”, what the court means is its “ordinary, everyday meaning” and what “a reasonably prudent person applying for insurance would have understood the term to mean,” and explicitly not its technical or scientific meaning unless so indicated. And the decision argues that spiders are, using the ordinary meanings, both insects and vermin. The vermin claim I can accept easily enough: a Merriam-Webster definition of vermin as “small common harmful or objectionable animals (as lice or fleas) that are difficult to control” would surely include brown recluse spiders in most people’s minds (although not in mine!). What surprised me (especially since it seems unnecessary to the case, which could have been decided simply on “vermin”) is that the decision actually argues first and at more length that spiders are also insects. Really?
The court begins by acknowledging that spiders are arachnids, not insects, in the technical sense***. Then it unleashes an long series of dictionary definitions to establish that many people do, in fact, consider the word “insect” to include spiders. Much to my surprise, this turns out to be true (although generally, the first definition in a given dictionary is the “correct” one, and the extension to other similar small creatures such as spiders and millipedes is marked “loosely” or “non-technical” or something like that). And while I’d like very much for insect not to mean “any of a remarkable variety of smallish arthropods”, I guess I have to admit that in some sense it does. Dictionaries record the meanings of words as they’re used – even if those definitions offend our haughty sense of what words should mean. (If you’d like to continue quibbling – as I would – you’re forced to argue that “ordinary meaning” should mean what most people think, not what at least one person thinks, and also forced to gather evidence that the looser definitions really are uncommon usages.)
Having established that the ordinary meaning of “insect” includes spiders, the court then turns to a summary of taxonomic history demonstrating that the scientific exclusion of spiders from insects isn’t as old as you might think. The court points out that the first scientific use of “insect” (by Philemon Holland in a 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History) included spiders, as did Linnaeus’s definition of the Class Insecta. It then traces the exclusion of spiders to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who established the separate Class Arachnida. This passage struck me as (1) completely irrelevant to the case, for reasons the court had just taken some pains to establish; and (2) extremely impressive.
So: spiders aren’t insects to me (and we’ll see whether the poll data suggest that you agree). But to insurance companies and the 11th District they are. Dictionaries side with me in their primary definitions, but recognize enough loose usage in their secondary definitions that at least one Alabama couple won’t be collecting an insurance payout. Does this bother me? Well, honestly, yes. Despite my being completely fine with “bug” meaning any insect, I just can’t hear “insect” as including spiders. I just can’t. But I’m not in charge of the English language. Although maybe I should be.
© Stephen Heard June 23, 2020
Whatever I might think of the outcome, the decision is superbly written and it’s great reading. Legal writing, like scientific writing, has a reputation for being tedious and turgid. Kudos to the authors of this decision for challenging that. You should read the whole thing.
Image: A Study of Butterflies, Moths, Spiders, and Insects by Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626-79). Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston; image in the public domain.
*^We’ll leave aside the issue of how many brown recluse spiders constitute an “infestation”, whether the spiders in question really were brown recluses, and so on. These issues, while interesting, get in the way of the semantic quibbling I have planned.
**^Yes, you’re right, I did the viz. thing because it seemed amusingly legalistic.
***^While this isn’t relevant, because we’ve already established that the law turns on ordinary meanings rather than technical ones, it has the salutary effect of establishing that the court wasn’t just being ignorant.