September 19, 2019
Readers protest outdated dictionary entries; “What’s the matter with being sexy,” asks UK honcho
by Mike Lindgren
Ain’t no way Mike Lindgren is not going to kick off his first-ever Moby with a Spinal Tap reference … especially when some UK protestors have noticed that the august Oxford English Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press, natch, has some pretty rank language choices, and that is A-Not-OK. “Bitch” and “hussy” listed as common synonyms for “woman”? I told you to be home when I get home, little woman as a usage example? Ouch!
Upon seeing the depth of the misogyny embedded in the very bones of the dictionary, activist and scholar Maria Beatrice Giovanardi started a petition asking OUP to, among other things, “eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women.” Oxford’s Katherine Connor Martin, whose title is “Head of Lexical Content Strategy,” responded, with just a touch of asperity, that since a dictionary is by nature descriptive rather than prescriptive, “if there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory.”
Egads! We thought that the whole prescriptive-vs-descriptive thing had been safely settled in favor of the descriptivists … but perhaps a swing towards prescriptivism is in order, given our increasing understanding of how potent language can be in the service of oppression? This whole thing is way above our pay grade! … so, we turn, as we do in all things lexicographical, to the words of Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson once observed (he was sh*t-talking Milton, as it happens), that “They who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it.” Very a propos! In the meantime, if you would like to join us in signing Giovanardi’s petition, you can do so here.
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.