In June 2001, the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission released for sale a new “scratch-and-play” lottery game card named “Caesars [sic] Palace®” (played by scratching the surface of each card at designated spots to reveal hidden numbers or images). It offered a grand prize of $1,000,000 to players whose game cards contained certain spots that matched. Very soon, numerous purchasers began to claim million-dollar prizes; most of these demands-for-payment were denied by the Commission on the grounds that the claims were based upon a misreading of the game-card instructions. The claimants appealed, but their appeals were denied by a special hearing board appointed by the Commission. Further appeal to state courts in Massachusetts can by law be based only on procedural grounds, not the facts of the case. This paper analyzes the semantic, pragmatic, and semiotic bases for the claimants’ and Commission’s conflicting interpretations of the instructions—a somewhat new application of linguistics to the field of language and law. The essay also raises theoretical questions concerning the relationship between linguistics and semiotic theory in the context of real- world data.
revision of a paper presented at the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics, 19 April 2002