Like all of us, lawyers have favorite words and phrases. One lawyer used the phrase “second guess” to mean four different things within the same attorney-client meeting. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it much, but as I had to render it into another language, I had to focus on what he was really trying to convey. I soon realized that he meant something different each time he said the phrase.
When he said he could not second guess what the jury would do, he meant that he could not predict the outcome. He was warning the client that the jury decision as to his guilt was unpredictable.
When he said the judge would not second guess the jury, except in very limited situations, he meant that the judge was not going to replace the jury’s judgment with her own.
Once the defendant decided to take a plea deal, the lawyer advised him not to second guess himself. He meant not to dwell on whether the decision was the right one. This is a very special meaning of second guess, that includes the idea of taking a good decision and by doubting yourself, possibly replacing it with a worse decision.
Lastly, the lawyer assured the defendant that he was not going to second guess the defendant’s ultimate decision to plea out or go to trial. This time, he meant that he was not going to criticize or judge him for that decision. He was assuring his client that he was free to choose for himself, and that the attorney would be fine either way.
One version of the origin of the phrase itself is that baseball umpires used to be called “guessers” and those who criticized them and wished to replace his decisions with their own were coined “second guessers”. The verb was then back-formed from that term and brought into general use outside of sports.
Nowadays second guessing can mean to predict outcome, to replace someone else’s decision with your own, to doubt yourself, or to criticize someone’s else’s decision. It can refer to hindsight or foresight, past or future, and be directed toward others or one’s self. Sorry if this leaves you second guessing what someone means when they talk about second guessing. But I am not going to second guess myself about this week’s post.