Between a rock and a hard (to define) place

I pity lexicographers. They have to walk a fine line between how words are used and how words ought to be used. As if this wasn’t difficult enough, now they face accusations of sexism, as the Oxford Dictionaries did last week (Melville House BlogThe Guardian). The furor about the examples Oxford used for the words rabid, shrill, nagging, etc. are unfortunate, but I don’t find them sexist. I thought they were fairly accurate considering how the words are used now.

As an undergraduate, I had the curious experience of having classes in language from a feminist prescriptivist and a descriptivist. The prescriptivist gave lectures in which she asked us to ponder whether words like policeman or fireman discouraged women from taking up the professions. I daresay she would sympathize with efforts to have Oxford change their examples to something that would show definition-seekers how the word should be used from now on. The descriptivist professor would not. He would argue that lexicographers are always chasing after speakers, trying to capture what new words mean and how meanings have shifted before the next round of slang arrives.

Funny enough, last week was also when I came across an article from Wired about an art project in Malaysia that seeks to point out the ingrained sexism in Chinese. The article, by Liz Stinson, discusses how art collective TypoKaki is inserting the character for woman into all kinds of phrases to make puns and statements. Stinson writes and quotes an expert on Chinese languages:

Neither TypoKaki nor Moser believes Women’s Words is anything other than an artistic provocation. “In a way it’s not a serious language project because there’s no way in the world these are ever going to be adopted by an ordinary person writing every day.” Moser says. “But as an art project it makes people who look at it suddenly start to see language in a new way and start asking questions.”

This raising of awareness about word’s nuances is the real problem in all of this. It may seem silly to take lexicographers to task for such a small thing, but, as Moser says in Stinson’s article, “[Chinese characters] reinforce a way of thinking because the people who created them had this way of thinking.” Words in English are the same. I’m one of the last people to argue for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but I will say that it is useful to consider the associations that words create in our heads.

The only problem with forcing Oxford to change their examples is that, like TypoKaki’s art project, the practical effects are going to be limited. Most of the time, I only use dictionaries to settle quarrels with my colleagues about what words mean. I don’t look to them to see how I ought to use words. And if a dictionaries does become a crusader for prescriptive definitions, it will lose touch with actual speakers of the language before too long.

Rick & Brenda Beerhorst
Rick & Brenda Beerhorst
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