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
jester[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]panix.com