Date: Mon, 31 Oct 1994 11:20:53 -0500

From: Jesse T Sheidlower jester[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PANIX.COM

Subject: Re: offensiveness

Dictionaries are historical records, so editors should cover as much of

contemporary language as they can. Even though most people use "Webster's"

as a guide to usage, in the long run each dictionary is a slice-of-time

representation of how people use language. Posterity is not served well

when touchy feelings get in the way of recording facts. As Sali suggested,

rather than omitting offensive terms dictionary editors should include them

and label them appropriately.

I agree with all of this wholeheartedly. However (and I missed Sali's post

on this), I do want to point out that most people who use dictionaries--

at least, those who bother to write--do not agree. I've done a good amount

of publicity for Random House, and a question that never fails to come up

is "Why do you include bad words in the dictionary?" The response is, of

course, that they are in common use, and an appropriate label indicating

the offensiveness of a word is better than omitting it altogether, and if

by omitting offensive words from the dictionary we could eliminate hatred,

we would gladly do so, but this is not usually accepted.

The single biggest subject that people write about is the word _nigger_.

In fact, we probably get more letters about this word than about all other

subjects combined. Most letters state that the word doesn't belong in

the dictionary no matter what. Some of the letters state, amazingly, that

we're defining it incorrectly: _nigger_ does not mean 'black person', it

means 'stupid person'.

I once got a letter complaining about _jew down_. I responded with the

usual previously mentioned formula, and got back a six-page, single-spaced

rant, saying that if a long history and common use made a word OK, then it

was also OK to burn Jews alive as they worship in temple, since that's

what Christians have typically done, and so forth. It was quite unnerving.

Naturally, I still don't think that offensive words should be omitted

from dictionaries, but arguments that are obvious to us are not necessarily

obvious to dictionary users. I'm sure my colleagues at the other college

dictionaries have similar experiences.

Jesse T Sheidlower


Random House Reference