Sen. Orrin Hatch says he and Elena Kagan had a “colloquy.” Is that good?

When a nominee for the United States Supreme Court faces confirmation hearings, two things tend to happen. Every single word uttered by the nominee or the Judical Commitee faces intensive scrutiny. Fortunately for the public, senators and nominees tend to use unusual language, making the procedure a tad more interesting,

Sen. Orrin Hatch is famous for his standing on the Judicial Committee, for his conservative views, and for his colorful, courteous speaking style. Today he and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan engaged in a lively discussion about campaign finance laws. In the midst of the exchange, Hatch said “I’m enjoying our colloquy together.” Kagan’s reply? “Me too.”

A colloquy is generally “a conversational exchange; dialogue.” In legal jargon, it can refer to “a discussion during a hearing between the judge and the defendant usually to ascertain the defendant’s understanding of his or her rights and of the court proceedings.” If the term sounds familiar, it may be due to its kinship with colloqium, “a conference of scholars on a specific topic,” and colloquial, “informal, or ordinary speech.”

Note the difference between colloquium and colloquial; one describes specialized language, the other everyday communication. Both possibilities exist in the definition of colloquy, ordinary conversation as well as the specialized nature of a legal exchange. In the case of Hatch’s remark, both senses, though potentially contradictory, are appropriate. Their exchange was a legal dialogue with formal roles, yet also possessed  the loose structure of conversation.

The roots of colloquy are the Latin co- “together” and -loqui, “to speak.”. One of the few other English words ending in -quy is soliloquy, “talking to oneself, or talking without regard to the presence of others.”

Let’s hope for more colloquies, and fewer soliloquies, from senators as well as the nominee.