Seamy Web

Lawyers (and especially law professors) like to say that “the law is a seamless web.” The phrase seems to come from the great English legal historian Frederick Maitland, who wrote in 1898:

Such is the unity of all history that any one who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web.

Others can argue about what it means as a metaphor, but I’ve never understood the metaphor itself. How could a web be “seamless?” A web, to me, indicates a network of line segments joined together at discrete points of intersection. Seamless suggests continuity, but a web is discontinuous to begin with; there are great honking patches of emptiness in between the individual threads in the web, and things are very different at the intersection points than along the threads. Sure, you can “tear” the threads apart and thereby split the web into pieces, but was the web ever seamless?

I’m not sure what a “seam” in a spider web or the World Wide Web would look like. I can envision a seam in a piece of cloth; that’s where two otherwise continuous pieces of cloth have been sewn together. But a seam in a web? Perhaps Maitland had in mind a web that was so dense with threads that, as in most pieces of fabric, you don’t see the individual threads, but only a flat, continuous whole. But then, is the “web” aspect really the right one to emphasize? It would seem more natural to talk about a seamless “cloth,” or just to dodge the question and say a seamless “whole.”

I’m with the Lawyers’ Committee for Metaphorical Integrity and Integrity in Metaphor, and I endorse this message.

You're thinking of spider webs. There are lots of other kinds of webs.

For instance, think of the "web" in a web-fed offset printing press. It's a very long, continuous piece of paper that passes all the way through the press, as opposed to the individual sheets used by a sheet-fed press. Or think of the "webs" between the toes of swimming animals like frogs and ducks.

I think, in general, a web is a flat thing that spans across a gap. It's quite reasonable for one to be seamless. Webs made of threads, like spider webs, are more the exception than the rule.