“tubal ligation”

This is what three of my students did not write.

I commented the other day about students’ difficulty writing about various physical ailments, even when the terms are spelled out for them on assignment sheets. I have another group of examples today.

The case I asked students to write about involved a couple in Tennessee who were accused of molesting the woman’s two young sons. The presiding judge sentenced husband and wife to ten years in prison, but offered probation instead if the woman consented to a tubal ligation. Presumably if she had no more children there would be no one to molest….The state was also seeking permanent custody of their five children (one a new-born), noting that the mother came from a “very incestuous” family. After presenting a number of opinions from people involved in the case (including a comment that there was gender discrimination in this particular case since the husband faced NO consequences if his wife agreed to be sterilized) and some background on prison overcrowding, I asked my students to write in favor of or against making sterilization an alternative to prison for sex offenders, with the Tennessee case as their example.

The arguments covered a reasonable spectrum, but most students were critical of the judge’s “creative” solution, for one reason or another.

The biggest challenge in the assignment, it turned out, was specifying the nature of the sterilization procedure. It was stated, and defined, on the assignment sheet. How hard are those two words to spell? How can the act of tying off, by means of a ligature, the Fallopian tubes be confused with any other action? Here are three of the most popular variants:

“She must get a tubal litigation done to avoid going to prison.”

“She has been given the option of undergoing a tubule legation.”

“The woman agreed to the tubal legation.”

Legal procedures are invoked by way of “litigation.” The seriousness of the surgery is trivialized via “tubule,” a “small tube, esp. a slender elongated anatomical channel.” The “-bule” makes it such a little thing…. And of course we get that gang of men arriving in the “legation,” “a body of deputies sent on a mission, specifically to a foreign country and headed by a minister.” Foreign minister, not religious minister. At any rate, she seems to have consented to their visit.

“Undergoing” this legation must involve tedious receptions, perhaps onerous dependence on translators, serious overstaying of welcomes, and the like. Clearly the woman is the foreign country here, since the legation will be visited upon her. But where do the little tubes come in?

Not having been to law school myself, I don’t know what tubal litigation would be. “Tubal” is, properly, “of, relating to, or involving a tube and esp. a Fallopian tube,” although in relation to litigation the word might suggest a fanfare of tubas as the judge enters. How might litigation involve a tube? Do the attorneys beat each other with hoses? Do they speak through speaking tubes? Or is there a whole class of case law that applies to disputes over tubes, esp. but not limited to Fallopian tubes?

When I read about the Tennessee case in the newspapers, I was floored by the judge’s notions of justice. When I read about it in my students’ papers, I was floored by the bizarre pictures of those notions as conjured up by this procession of wrong words, perfectly spelled—quite in the tradition of Mrs. Malaprop. Make way for the tubule legation!

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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