orig·​i·​nal·​ism ə-ˈri-jə-nə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce originalism (audio)
US law
: a legal philosophy that the words in documents and especially the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as they were understood at the time they were written
Some judges believe the best way to interpret the Constitution … lies in an approach called originalism. The judges who follow this approach look to history to discover what those who wrote the Constitution most likely thought about the content and scope of a constitutional phrase, and they interpret the phrase accordingly.Stephen Breyer
The main point of originalism, which has driven conservative legal theory for a generation, is that the Constitution does not evolve.Garrett Epps
compare textualism
originalist adjective
an originalist judge
But White does not usually subscribe to the originalist school of interpretation which sacralizes the Founding Fathers and the text of the Constitution as the fount of wisdom. Rhonda Copelon
originalist noun
plural originalists
Originalists attempt to discern the original meaning of a legal document—most frequently the Constitution. Marc O. DeGirolami

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Nor is there a single theory of law comparable to originalism that is considered essential for each liberal nominee to believe in, for better or worse. Matt Ford, The New Republic, 6 Jan. 2023 Curtis had taken Taney’s uninformed originalism and thrown it in his face. David W. Blight Max-o-matic, New York Times, 21 Dec. 2022 Wednesday’s argument careened across the legal, historical, and intellectual map – from the English Bill of Rights to antebellum Virginia; from the legal theory of originalism to textualism, then to federalism. Henry Gass, The Christian Science Monitor, 8 Dec. 2022 But the simplicity and objectivity that originalism promises are a charade. David Cole, The New York Review of Books, 9 Nov. 2022 Neither is there any inconsistency between national pro-life legislation and originalism. WSJ, 16 Sep. 2022 Joshua Zeitz gets the law and history wrong in attacking originalism. Dan Mclaughlin, National Review, 30 June 2022 Meese is a heavyweight in the conservative legal movement, having played a key role in the formulation of originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation in the 1980s. Matt Ford, The New Republic, 28 Oct. 2022 After Griswold, conservative critics of the Court began to devise an approach to constitutional interpretation custom-built to defeat it: the jurisprudence of originalism. Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 26 Oct. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'originalism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History


original entry 2 + -ism

First Known Use

1980, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of originalism was in 1980

Dictionary Entries Near originalism

Cite this Entry

“Originalism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/originalism. Accessed 27 Jan. 2023.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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