The Times, They Are A-Changing (And So Should Your Dictionary)

I was on an airplane heading to Georgia for a conference when I got into my usual “take my mind off the possibility this plane will suddenly plummet from the sky” conversation with my seatmate. Talk turned to dictionaries, and my seatmate began heaping praise on her old one. She had, she told me proudly, a Webster’s Second, and there was no way in heaven or on earth she was going to give it up for one of those silly modern dictionaries. “My son keeps trying to get me to use a dictionary on my phone, but I tell him, ‘Those new dictionaries aren’t the same quality as the one I have at home.'”

I opened my mouth to say that, nice though the definitions in the Second are, they are almost 80 years out of date, when the supercell we were flying past let out a little meteorological burp and the plane flew right through it. I am not entirely sure, but I believe we may have flipped over several times, and I am certain that the sound that came out of my mouth was not a spirited defense of the modern dictionary (though it was certainly “spirited” in the “possessed by banshees” sense). Our bounce through North Carolina airspace lasted only ten seconds, and afterwards my seatmate excused herself to the lavatory, so our conversation was over.

Had the conversation continued, I would have said this: old dictionaries are nostalgia bombs in more ways than one. The heft of the Second and the Third are glorious: tooled leather and gold-leaf embossing, that powdery vanilla smell of old paper as you smooth the pages back. Then you see this:

doo dee doo dee doo WHAT

“Negrito,” Webster’s Second

Consulting old dictionary definitions is like having dinner with your grandparents. The evening usually starts off well enough, with your grandparents telling stories of their life during the war or down on the farm, and then there is that one point where your dear old granny says something that is slightly outré and you know that the whole conversation is slowly going off the rails, but before you can think of some tactful way to change the subject, your dear grandma is using words like “Japs” and “Eye-ties” and “the blacks,” words that make you inadvertently screech your fork across your plate. And when you look for some sign of self-consciousness–some sign that she should know better, Grandma–all you see is the same little old lady who was there before the vileness came tumbling out of her mouth, slowly daubing her meatloaf with mashed potato.

I have been reminded of the chronological fixedness of old dictionaries as we have begun working on the Unabridged Dictionary. It’s no secret that most dictionaries in print today are written using another dictionary as the base; the Unabridged is being built on the very doughty scaffolding of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. We review the entries in the Third, add (many, many) new entries, and flesh out or correct entries that need it, and in no time at all, idiomatically speaking, the dictionary we’re working on is no longer the Third but a new critter entirely. But this transformational work is not as easy as you’d think, because the Third is 50 years old, and some of the language used and the implicit attitudes expressed therein are like those dinners with Grandma after she’s polished off her second martini. It’s not that the definers of the Third were trying to be offensive, it’s just that society and our cultural ethos have changed a little since 1961. When the Third was released, there was no Equal Pay Act or fully ratified Fourteenth Amendment or Roe v. Wade; sodomy was a felony in every state in the U.S.; and one of the top pop hits was “Runaround Sue,” a song that we today would call “slut-shaming.” Considering the time, it’s frankly amazing that the Third is as careful and circumspect as it is.

For dictionaries that are updated more frequently–even dictionaries updated every 10 years–this de-Archie-Bunkering happens naturally. You notice, for instance, that there’s mention of women in the citations for “firefighter” or “CEO,” and all you do is make sure that you edit out the masculine pronoun in the definition. Or let’s say that you undertake a revision and discover that what was formerly called “Black English” is now called “African-American Vernacular English.” Fine: you search the data for any label that reads “Black English” and make the change. In this way, the dictionary is updated for modern mores in manageable nibbles. But the fact is that you are catching things as you encounter them, rather than hunting for them. For the Unabridged, we’d have to grab our pitchforks and head into the forest looking for the monsters.

It all begins with lists (if there is one thing we are good at, it is making depressing lists). We compiled lists of every word in the Third, the latest Collegiate, and the Learner’s Dictionary that was given any sort of stigmatizing label, regardless of whether that label was current (dated, old-fashioned, vulgar, obscene) or not (abuse, contempt). Then we began to think of words we had encountered in our many jaunts through the Third that struck us as culturally sensitive or potentially offensive: “Negro,” for instance, or “colored.” This list grew as each of us began thinking about awkward family dinners with That One Uncle who likes to talk loudly with his mouth full and eventually lapses into saying horrible things that make our eyes widen and our mothers tsk in disapproval. As we each delved into the archives of our mythic That One Uncle, we together sang the body apoplectic: “Do we have ‘Asiatic’ on the list?” “Do we have ‘homosexual’ on the list?” “Please tell me that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are on the list.” “Oh good Lord, we absolutely need to put ‘redskin’ on the list.” And because everything’s better in threes, we had a third list of words that might be potentially sexist: any word with a masculine pronoun in the definition; any word with a gender-specific term (“woman,” “girl,” “mistress,” “man,” “boy”) in the definition; words ending in the suffix “-ette” or “-ess”; any word with the affix “-man.” Compiling these lists was deeply exhausting work, mostly because we’d swing between being riled up about and deeply embarrassed by the imaginary collective -isms of That One Uncle. 

Eventually, we had our list of words. But we weren’t ready to revise yet, because first, we had to search through every entry in the Third that contained any member of those lists. If “man” or “boy” appeared in a definition, a usage note, an example sentence or verbal illustration, an etymology, or even a subject label, the word where it appeared was put on the Potentially Offensive List. When all was said and done, we had thousands and thousands of entries to go through.

This is the point at which my dear friends who are computational linguists want to hear about the programmatic handling of these entries, but the truth is that everything had to be done by hand. Despite Philip Gove’s zeal for order and systematic defining, none of these terms had parallel handling in the Third, so it wasn’t as simple as swapping out “Negro” with “African-American,” for instance. Some of these terms were also a little too nuanced for a simple search-and-replace. The word “primitive” as it is applied to people groups is culturally outdated, but that doesn’t mean that every instance of the word “primitive” in the Third needs to be swapped out with…what, exactly? Is there a single synonymous word for this particular sense of “primitive” that would fit every stigmatized use of it in the Third? How would we know without having a real, live, myopic and undercaffeinated editor look at ever stigmatized use of “primitive” first? Our stalwart and defiantly cheerful Cross-Reference department began sorting through 50 years of fodder for awkward family dinners, and then an equally cheerful group of editors (and me) began to update these entries.

There is something utterly dispiriting about encountering that volume of offensiveness, but it can also motivate you. I am making this goddamned better, you think, because no one else should have to deal with That One Uncle in this dictionary, and you swallow the bile and bite back the “WTF!”s and keep editing “Negro” out of entries.

But as you may guess, offensiveness isn’t always so easily predictable. Take, for instance, the entry in the Third for “atheistic,” which I had in one of my early defining batches. The definition reads, in full, “relating to, characterized by, or given to atheism : GODLESS, IMPIOUS, IRREVERENT.”

“Oh my God,” I muttered, then paused briefly to regret my word choice. To a lexicographer, that boldface colon between “atheism” and “godless” is not just a cute way of breaking up space, but a way to signal that the things on either side of that colon are exactly synonymous. That means that if someone is describing another person as “atheistic,” according to that definition, they mean both that that person subscribes to atheism and that they are impious, irreverent, and godless. I believe that this definition wasn’t a malicious attack on atheists–it was just sloppy defining. These are two separate meanings and shouldn’t have been shoved together into one. But that boldface colon in the middle of the entry makes what could have been a perfectly neutral definition into a moral judgment on atheists.

There were occasional reprieves: sometimes the issues we uncovered weren’t completely depressing. While looking through the entry for “runner,” I ran across the definition “a seaman engaged for a short single voyage” and howled like a 12-year-old boy. “Seaman” went on the Potentially Offensive List; that sense of “runner” has yet to be fixed.

And there’s the rub (hur hur hur): the Unabridged is a work in progress. We’ve already changed thousands of entries, but there are, as our Director of Defining has put it, “no doubt many more excitingly offensive things to be discovered.”

Lexicographers like to remind people often and loudly that a dictionary is a record of the English language as it is used–and it is, fully and totally, from its entry list to the language used in the definitions. That’s why I cringe when people tell me they prefer to cite Webster’s 1828 or Webster’s Second when discussing what words mean today. Both those dictionaries are perfectly serviceable and scholarly dictionaries of their day, but the sun set on that day a long time ago. By all means, love your old dictionaries–cherish them for the works of art that they are, keep them around to remind you of days gone by–but maybe don’t look up “Negrito” in them.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage

62 responses to “The Times, They Are A-Changing (And So Should Your Dictionary)

  1. I think a reason some cling to W2, is the whole idea that W3 isn’t “prescriptive” enough. This post should provide these folks with some food for thought.

  2. Excellent blog post and an excellent post! Which dictionary was it that recently included a definition of “tweet” as not just a sound a bird makes, but also a post on Twitter?

  3. Thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking stuff. You described my grandmother perfectly there by the way!

  4. Bardiac

    Older dictionaries are also a wonderful way to get a sense of how people used words and thought using words. They also humble us by reminding us that our own usages will be outdated and sound like an embarrassing grandparent at some point.

  5. K

    You have an elegant way with descriptions, and your affliction of lists, well, I had to wipe the tears before reading further. When I learned that dictionaries changed content, a while back, I started my dictionary collection to find the missing and added words per edition…

    • As I was reading the last part, the same thought came to my mind. I might also start collecting dictionaries and start a hunt of my own. 🙂

  6. Oh man, this reminds of how I could never convince my mother that her 1960 encyclopedia set was not a valid reference tool.

    Though, FWIW, older dictionaries (and encyclopedias, etc.) are good for *historical* linguistics and for the study of literature and culture of the dictionaries’ period, so they do have a reference value of sorts. Just saying.

    But, as usual, great post. And as daunting and demoralizing as you make the work updating all those entries sound, I still want your job. 🙂

    Btw, I think this may be only the second — or maybe the first?? — time I’ve commented here. *Love* your blog. Blog more, please! 🙂

  7. While it certainly sounds outdated, I don’t quite understand why the word “Negro” is offensive, considering that it’s the Spanish word for “black”, and referring to someone as black in English is not considered offensive. Is it the similarity to the other “N” word that makes it offensive? Would negro be considered offensive in a Spanish-speaking country?

    • Kari M.

      Well, my Webster’s says Negro is sometimes offensive. I know that we were told to refer to African Americans as they prefered to refer to themselves. It probably comes down to a label being forced on a group from the outside rather than the name coming from inside the group (ie, the fact that many blacks use the “N” word referring to each other, but someone outside that group shouldn’t).

    • korystamper

      It’s important not to conflate the Spanish word Negro with the English word “Negro.” They have developed in their own languages independently of each other, so you can’t draw a parallel between their uses very easily. I don’t speak Spanish, so I can’t tell you whether the Spanish Negro is offensive. Spanish speakers, school me!

      The English “Negro” is labeled “dated, now sometimes offensive” in the Unabridged because the evidence we have of its use in English shows that it is now considered dated, and in some contexts, it’s offensive. Often it’s offensive because it’s dated: if I remember right, during the 1960s, civil rights leaders and activists began to prefer “Black” over “Negro” because of the association the word “Negro” has with with slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination.

      The history of racial terms–and especially the words used by, about, and of African-Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries–is fascinating stuff. I’ll see if I can’t dig up a few books titles on the topic if you’re interested. (Or other readers, chime in with titles.)

      • I would be interested in those books. It does seem that words that originally were supposed to be descriptive and non-offensive somehow over time become offensive, creating the need for a new non-offensive word. Fifty years ago, the word “Negro” was the standard, used in newspaper articles and polite company. People who wanted a gentler (for lack of a better term) word used “colored”. Now both are considered by many to be offensive.
        This is not limited to racial terms. Consider the word “retarded”, which originally was descriptive, replacing such offensive terms as “idiot” and “moron”, which originally were descriptive medical terms. Now the accepted term seems to be “mentally challenged”, which I assume in due time will be considered offensive.
        It’s hard to write about this without coming across as curmudgeonly. I’m all in favor of calling groups of people by their preferred term, but it is disconcerting that using a formally preferred term can in time make people think that you are insensitive or racist.

        • Linguists have called this phenomenon the “euphemism treadmill”. The problem is that it’s easy to change words, but attitudes change slowly. The negative attitudes attached to certain groups or concepts eventually taint what was once a neutral term, so it is replaced with a new neutral term that also slowly becomes tainted.

        • elmediat

          As retired high school teachers & parents of of a Downs person, we can see both sides of the shifting offensive language problem. If you have heard the number of times the following expressions you can see the issue:
          “That’s so retarded.”
          “How retarded.” .
          A perfectly acceptable term may shift into derogatory slang. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ” the meaning of a word is its use”. When my wife would comment on the language use and refer to our daughter, the students response – ” but that is not what we meant, not like your daughter. You know, we mean stupid/dumb/silly”. I would ask my students about fire retardant in the fire extinguishers. “Are fire extinguishers therefore stupid ? ”
          Language usage keeps slip sliding this way & that. yesterday’s meaningless term,”blog” is now ubiquitous. A descriptor becomes an insult.

      • Calitri

        “Negro” in Spanish signifies “black” so how can it be offensive? That would be the only word in Spanish to describe a Black person, as black, in English, is the only word to describe, “a black person.”

        Regarding old dictionaries versus new I think it’s a matter of taste. Some people prefer classical literature while others prefer modern. It’s understandable that a few words are offensive, not only as a word, but also in how they are defined in the older dictionaries. That doesn’t diminish the substantive quality of those dictionaries.

        There are numerous classical works of literature that are extremely racially offensive; nevertheless, they are classics written by distinguished and gifted authors, and they cannot be ignored.

        I find that there are many polysyllabic and more challenging words in the much older dictionaries that are no longer entered in the newer ones; certainly more challenging and etymologically significant than “tweet”. I also prefer the style of writing in how those words are defined.

        By the way Ms. Stamper, not all grandparents behave similarly. There are grandparents who do comprehend the inappropriateness of certain outdated words and expressions.

        • korystamper

          Ah, thanks for the Spanish lesson! All I can do in Spanish anymore is swear (what a surprise).

          Deciding which dictionary to use is often a matter of taste, but sadly not everyone is as savvy a dictionary user as you are. I routinely hear from people who are shocked that their dictionary from 1940 doesn’t enter “modem” or “SMS,” for instance, or want us to “recall” an out-of-print dictionary from the 1950s because an example sentence in it uses the word “colored” to refer to black people. So it does me good to hear of people who approach their dictionary thoughtfully and realize that it is a product of its time. Not everyone does.

      • Now Dimly

        While it has been since the mid-90’s that I was in Venezuela, my girl friends back then referred to one another as “negrita” or “blanquita,” one being particularly dark and the other being rather pale. But there was no real “black” in my experience while there; everyone was Venezuelan. They did not have the same baggage we had and still have with regards to slavery and racial equality. At least not as recently as we experienced.

        I had friends back here who preferred the term “black” to “African American.” I will call someone whatever they want to be called, but personally feel awkward calling someone “African American” whose most recent ancestors never even left the U.S. I also don’t like referring to myself as Caucasian. I’m white. I’m not a European American, and my grandparents were all children of European immigrants. I think it’s a good practice not to describe someone by their race. Next time you think about it, try referring to someone by their name or their hair color or some other feature that’s unique to them. It helps makes me feel equal to that person since we are all human beings after all.

    • I’m sure others more grounded in linguistic history will have a more comprehensive answer, but the first thing that comes to mind is this: How ridiculous would it sound to you if you were referred to as a Blanco all the time?

      A color is not a person.

      Keep it up, Kory. If you haven’t collected and published these and other writings into a stack of dead trees in the next few years, I’m going to be very disappointed.

      • That’s a good point. Perhaps such terms are reserved for use by the majority to categorize minority groups? If that is the case, it makes me wonder if “Negro” was ever really the preferred self-referential term for African-Americans or if they just accepted it as preferable to less savory words.

  8. As something of a computationalist, I would never suggest that you process these de-unclifications automatically: there are too many clbuttic gaffes that can result from naive buttumptions if you globally replace words in running text. Besides, fixing this kind of thing by hand is so satisfying, who would want to miss out on it?

    On “seaman”: The word has been used in earnest in at least six NYTimes articles so far this year. I’m not sure I would want to deny anyone the joy of reading it in a definition. As one literary runner put it. “if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way.”

    . . . “spent”.

    • korystamper

      Clbuttic gaffes for a clbutty lady.

      There is a lot of wishful thinking regarding the electronic structure of dictionaries, as you know. You’ve actually worked with dictionary text and know its idiosyncrasies, so you know the limitations of automated replacements and expansions. But there is always some bright spark who asks why we don’t just hire an awesome computational linguist to make this easier for us–or make this project happen faster. Because computers + problems = solutions faster!

      And on an up (hur hur hur) note: not all the instances of “seaman” have been replaced because it’s evidently a rank in the Merchant Marine, and so some uses of “seaman” are justified. For the sake of 12-year-olds and NYTimes writers everywhere, I am glad.

  9. Very interesting blog entry. It describes an extraordinarily impressive set of accomplishments and ongoing work.

    You said: “But as you may guess, offensiveness isn’t always so easily predictable.” It struck me that you’ve encountered lots of people who preferred the definitions and usage notes in the older dictionaries. There are numbers of people who are put off by modern substitutes for gender-biased terms, say (e.g., “chairman”), sometimes seeming to _take offense_ at terms they characterize as “politically correct” (a landmine of a term in its own right). How have you been dealing with that kind of bad feelings that the newer words and usages might evoke in some readers and listeners?

    • korystamper

      Mostly by sharing the facts and evidence with them. But to be frank, I have learned through many years of editorial correspondence that if someone really thinks that you are defining a word in a particular way because you’re bowing to “politically correct” pressure, there will be very little to dissuade them from this idea. So I share the evidence and expect a long screed back about how we’re in the pocket of the Left and Noah Webster would by turning in his grave &c, &c.

      What I would like to tell them is that it’s not as though we’re marching around and forcing people to use the words in our dictionary in precisely the way we’ve defined them. What do they think this is, 1984? Anyway, that’d be a zero-sum game for us, since no one would use new words and lexicographers make their living (ha–pardon, “living”) on new words. But I don’t, because then the screed I get back will also mention the Illuminati and fascism, and there are only so many of those emails I can contractually get in one year before I am required to be given hazard pay.

      Lexicographers learn very quickly that someone will always take offense to every. single. thing you put in the dictionary. That’s not to say that sometimes we’re wrong–look at “dord”–but we can’t let people’s like or dislike of a word keep us from doing our job and entering that word in the dictionary.

      • Thanks! But I wasn’t asking about the criticisms of the dictionary, but rather about the reactions to words. I was thinking about the labeling of words and the usage notes. If certain usages can be offensive to a very visible and vocal part of the community, how do you distinguish the treatment of that kind of offense from the dictionary’s concerns about “seaman,” say? (I can see the nature of “offense” is different, but how do you go about distinguishing between types of offense taken?)

  10. “de-Archie-Bunkering” — I love it! 🙂

  11. My grandparents were, of course, all perfectly adjusted to the times. In their presence, no fork ever screeched across a plate.

    The closest I can think of is a conversation in which my grandmother and her elderly female peers agreed that the title “Mrs” belongs properly with the husband’s name, as in Mrs Gordon Morgan. Perhaps a fork-screeching moment had it been my grandfather, but it wasn’t.

  12. juliangriffith

    Thank you for reminding me that I should check for an e-book version of Dr. Johnson’s and maybe the Webster’s 1828. Not for putting now-offensive words in my characters’ mouths, but for finding more instances of changed words like the conversation/intercourse reversal. I love the occasional WTF moments it’s possible to create with those.

  13. Several people seem to have overlooked the fact that “African-American” is nationality-dependent, whereas “Negro” isn’t. I’m from the UK and we have people who would, in bygone times, be called “Negro”, and who are UK citizens. They don’t usually, from what I’ve heard, appreciate being described as African-American.

  14. Lovely image of the old dictionary as your old gramma or embarrassing uncle. I will remember that one.

    When my book came out I did a lot of radio, including one with Gordon Liddy, who was of course unabashedly old-fashioned and prescriptivist, but a complete gentleman in our chat. He revealed himself to be a proud W2 man…

  15. Ø

    Yes, Peter, I’ve known a normally even-tempered Englishman to go a bit ballistic over the fact that white people of the USA can sometimes be heard to refer to black people as “African-Americans” even when the latter have never set foot on the New World. In his view this was one more piece of evidence of the profound and maddening self-centeredness of the USA.

    What he was overlooking, I think, is the traumatic effect of the history of slavery and racism on the US. White people, trained not to say the wrong thing, will sometimes nervously say something absurd.

    A distantly related absurdity from an old Doonesbury cartoon: On the occasion of a birth, “It’s a woman! a baby woman!”

  16. Ø

    Every word in a dictionary reflects a view of the world. In most cases it will be a controversial view. In some cases not so much. Maybe in a hundred years all the words denoting groups that we now call “races” or “racial groups” will be outdated, because the idea of race will have largely fallen out of use, out of favor–just as the idea of “higher” and “lower” race (reflected in the definition of “Negrito”) has done now.

  17. Ø

    (I meant to write “in most cases it will be an uncontroversial view”.)

  18. Excellent post! I do think it’s important, though, to distinguish between things that are offensive now because of changing usage (as has been pointed out, “Negro” was the preferred usage at the time) and those that are inherently offensive and should never have been included (“the lowest of mankind”!). It’s a disservice to the lexicographers who created the Third to implicitly place them on the same level as those who wrote the “Negrito” definition (and I notice you don’t have any damning images from the Third). Just because a dictionary needs to be updated doesn’t mean the older version was ripped from the bowels of Satan.

    Also, “Runaround Sue” is a great song. Surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that pop songs, then and now, often fail to express the highest ideals of humanity.

    • juliangriffith

      Also, one could make a case that “Runaround Sue” isn’t so much slut-shaming as pointing out that Sue breaks relationship agreements, or doesn’t communicate hers clearly. The singer obviously thought they were in an exclusive relationship!

    • korystamper

      True enough–and though there’s plenty of work left to be done in sifting through the Third, Gove managed to get rid of quite a bit of the truly egregious stuff (“lowest of mankind”) in updating the Second. Like I said, considering when the Third was written, it’s amazing that there’s not more stuff in there of the “egregious” kind.

      As for pop songs, are you suggesting that “Careless Whispers” is not some great commentary on our age? Truly, can one ever know if guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm?

  19. How would you poitically correct lexicographers describe a person of African descent who lives in and is a citizen of France?

    • Jeff

      The whole “African American” euphemism is so desperate to avoid racial slurs that it forgets that it’s supposed to be a reference to race and ends up instead describing geographic origin and current citizenship.

      I have a former colleague whose ancestry goes back many generations in Canada, by way of the Caribbean. He is quite plainly black. Is he an African Canadian?

      I have a current colleague who is from South Africa and now lives in Canada. He is quite plainly Caucasian. Is he an African Canadian?

      If I say that someone is African Canadian, have I said anything about his race? If so, what? If not, why am I using the expression?

      • I don’t know if y’all realize how bad expressions like “you poitically correct lexicographers” and “so desperate to avoid racial slurs” make you sound to anyone who isn’t immersed in your worldview, but the obvious answer to this non-problem is that people should be called by the names they prefer (hence the old African-American expression “don’t call me out of my name”). The fact that the preferred designation for African-Americans has changed from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” within living memory, with “African-American” added as a polite/formal equivalent (nobody expects you to use it every single time), is a reflection of the messy and ever-changing racial situation in the United States; it may be inconvenient for white folks who don’t want to bother having to keep up, but that inconvenience is really pretty minor compared to what black folks have had to put up with, don’t you think?

        To answer the specific questions posed:

        How would you poitically correct lexicographers describe a person of African descent who lives in and is a citizen of France?

        Whatever their preferred designation is; Wikipedia suggests “Noirs en France,” but I have no idea if that’s generally accepted.

        I have a former colleague whose ancestry goes back many generations in Canada, by way of the Caribbean. He is quite plainly black. Is he an African Canadian?

        If that’s what he calls himself.

        I have a current colleague who is from South Africa and now lives in Canada. He is quite plainly Caucasian. Is he an African Canadian?

        If that’s what he calls himself.

        why am I using the expression?

        Only you can answer that question.

        • Jeff

          languagehat, we don’t always have the luxury of asking individuals for their preferences, because we’re not always talking about identifiable individuals to whom we have conversational access.

          Let’s say, hypothetically, that for a study into racial equality and inequality in the workplace, we need to ask in a form what percentage of the staff of each participating company are black. (I grant that any racial category is inherently vague, but it’s the terminology that concerns us here.) What term may we use to refer to that race without asking each individual person in each company who may or may not be black which term he or she prefers?

        • calitri

          Therefore, I must assume by Languagehat’s theory

        • calitri

          I apologize, for my last comment, I inadvertently clicked on the post key without concluding my post.

          What I wanted to say was:

          Therefore, I must assume by Languagehat’s theory that if a Black person wants to be referred to as a Negro, then that is what we should call him.

  20. korystamper

    There are a few assumptions that need to be addressed here, so more long-winded blah-bitty-blah from me.

    First, remember that the dictionary as we write ‘er is not prescriptive, but descriptive. We tell you what a word means, if it’s generally considered to be polite or not, where it came from, how to say it, and that’s about it. If a word is in one of the dictionaries I’ve written, it is because a good chunk of the (American-)English speaking and writing public use that word with that meaning.

    Second, despite what some people think, the dictionary really cannot force anyone to use–or not use–a particular word. Would that it were true, because if nothing else, it would spare me from more news about Paula Deen.

    Third, words surrounding race and ethnicity (and gender, and sexual orientation, and and and) in America are charged not because the dictionary makes them so but because they already are so. No amount of dictionary-ing is going to change that. See points 1 and 2 above.

    Finally, a well-written dictionary is one that does not draw attention to itself: one whose writers disappear behind the clarion-clear meanings of its entries. That means that your defining language should be as contemporary and as neutral as possible. This is one of the fundamental tenets of professional lexicography and you can think whatever you like about that tenet, but it isn’t going to change any time soon (sorry).

    Feel free to continue the conversation, but keep the above in mind as you do. And above all, play nice. Don’t make me pull this car over &c.

  21. ian darling

    I thought this a fascinating piece. That whole descriptive/prescriptive thing with dictionaries seems to me a rather unreal front of the “culture wars”. Unreal because with good and sensitive usage notes really should give hankerers for authority in dictionaries all the information they need. dictionaries are fascinating

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  24. Doe

    Agreed,just I too wouldn’t bring perfectly good old songs into this. Unless we are defining song titles these days? Sorry,for one thing i’m a believer of a ducks a duck and all that. Otherwise,I don’t think the oldies were meant to be so serious as to be accused of bullying(if it is)of some sort. Plus,there were always songs in response if somebody had an issue with something or some artist. Perhaps it was a lighthearted intent to include one as an example of changing times,I just though it was a bit of a stretch.

  25. > “Consulting old dictionary definitions is like having dinner with your grandparents.”

    Or, like ‘dining with Duke Humphrey’, in more ways than one?

  26. calitri

    “Consulting old dictionary definitions is like having dinner with your grandparents.”

    Is a position that can be quite misguided and dismissive to Mr.Samuel Johnson, Mr. James Murray et al.

    • Why? Do you have something against your grandparents?

      • calitri

        On the contrary, I was countering what I thought was an opposition toward grandparents and old dictionaries.

        • Kory Stamper

          sigh Let me go on record, then, as saying:

          1. I had grandparents and loved them very much; and
          2. I collect old dictionaries and enjoy flipping through them from time to time.

          Now that we’ve ascertained that, let’s move the conversation on to something more interesting.

  27. Great post! I never thought about it but the dictionary seems like a great way to measure social change. I have to say though, I still like Runaround Sue haha.

  28. BigKitten

    Although you are usually correct about everything, I must take issue with one point. As an atheist, I would be proud to be described as “GODLESS, IMPIOUS, IRREVERENT” because those are qualities to which I aspire…
    IRREVERENT in daily life, IMPIOUS in the face of tyrants, and GODLESS in the bedroom.

  29. Who the heck has the gall to correct the pronunciation of a woman who works for M-W? At dinner, no less!

  30. JBR999

    I think it’s good to have an older dictionary around, just to get a sense of how certain words have changed their meaning or fallen out of usage. ‘Terrific’ used to mean the same as ‘terrifying’, now it means just the opposite.

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