Dictionaries and Labeling of Words Offensive to Groups, with Particular Attention to the Second Edition of the OED
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Number 11, 1989
- pp. 111-123
- Additional Information
- Purchase/rental options available:
DICTIONARIES AND LABELING OF WORDS OFFENSIVE TO GROUPS, WITH PARTICULAR ATTENTION TO THE SECOND EDITION OF THE OED JOHN McCLUSKEY Robert Burchfield, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, felt at times that certain groups wanted "to fix his head upon the battlements," the way Macbeth was reported to have affixed Macdonwald's. In an article entitled "Dictionaries and Ethnic Sensibilities," Burchfield records the assaults made upon him and other lexicographic editors when groups discovered definitions of themselves that they decided were "unacceptable or at best unwelcome" (109). The first such assault reported in Burchfield's article occurred in 1924 when the Clarendon Press, "in deference to complaints that had been published in the Jewish Chronicle, agreed to label the secondary meaning of Jew—'unscrupulous usurer or bargainer'—opprobrious." After citing a number of other attacks, Burchfield concludes that "dictionary editors are now at last aware that they must give maximum attention to sensitive words." He also believes that "for terms of racial abuse a special symbol meaning 'regarded as offensive in varying degrees by a person to whom the word is applied' is long overdue." "Dictionaries," he further maintains, "should aim to be regulative or normative . . . only by the use of cautionary labels and/or symbols" (292). In other words, lexicographic editors should not attempt to mollify offended groups by agreeing to omit offensive words altogether, but they do have a duty to inform readers that certain terms are inflammatory. Ill 112John McCluskey The number of words to which dictionary editors assign cautionary labels has increased considerably over the years. In 1934, Webster's Second New International Dictionary used cautionary labels sparingly and perhaps inconsistently . Among the few entries with warning labels were nigger , listed as a substandard term with the additional comment , "often used familiarly, now chiefly contemptuously." One definition of turk was "exhibiting any quality attributed to Turks, such as duplicity, sensuality, or brutality," but, strange to say, that definition went unlabeled. Negress was said to be a term "regarded by Negroes as derogatory"; Jewess , on the other hand, was defined as a "female Jew" without any cautionary label. Dago was a term said to be "used chiefly in contempt," but Jap was listed merely as "colloquial for Japanese," even as late as the 1960 printing. Also in Webster 's Second, hillbilly included the information "often used contemptuously," but white trash was merely labeled "Colloquial ." Gringo and greaser were both given cautionary labels, but redskin and wetback were not. Papist was labeled "used disparagingly," but Jesuit in its meaning "crafty person" was unlabeled. In 1961 Webster's Third New International Dictionary not only retained labels used by Webster's Second, but also added new ones. Webster's Third, for example, kept the cautionary label attached to hillbilly, and it added warning labels to cracker, white trash, and poor white. Jap, Asiatic, Muhammadan, and Kaffir, which Webster's Second had not found insulting, were given admonitory labels by Webster's Third. However, some derogatory terms related to ethnic groups, such as redskin and wetback, still went unlabeled in Webster's Third. Not until very recently were any of the terms denoting homosexuals tagged with cautionary labels. Four of the main desk dictionaries—the American Heritage, Random House, Labeling of Words Offensive to Groups113 Webster's New World, and Webster's Ninth New Collegiate— have entries for faggot, fag, queer, and queen, but just two— Webster's Ninth and Webster's New World—indicate that these terms are disparaging ones. The other desk dictionaries label them merely as slang. Among the unabridged dictionaries , only the Random House, published in 1987, warns the reader that faggot, fag, queer, and queen are disparaging and offensive terms. Other publishers of dictionaries will probably follow suit in forthcoming editions. Old maid is another term that until recently went unlabeled. To my knowledge, the Random House Unabridged was the first dictionary to label old maid a disparaging and offensive term. Like other dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary increased its labeling in the second edition, published in 1989. The first edition, for example, attached no cautionary label to the entry Dago. The definition there of Dago is: "A name originally given in the...