5.0151 PC Dictionary (4/145)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 18 Jun 91 10:49:10 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0151. Tuesday, 18 Jun 1991.

(1) Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1991 16:07:14 -0600 (19 lines)
From: d-bantz@uchicago.edu
Subject: Re: 5.0141 Politically Correct Dictionary?

(2) Date: Sun, 16 Jun 91 08:35 PDT (8 lines)
Subject: Re: 5.0141 Politically Correct Dictionary?

(3) Date: Mon, 17 Jun 91 10:01 BST (12 lines)
Subject: Re: pc dictionaries (5.0141)

(4) Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1991 10:26:44 -0500 (106 lines)
From: Dennis Baron <baron@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu>
Subject: PC Dictionary

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1991 16:07:14 -0600
From: d-bantz@uchicago.edu
Subject: Re: 5.0141 Politically Correct Dictionary?

>Any interest in discussing this dictionary war?
>Let me know.

Good topic.

What struck me in the NYT piece was creshendo of complaints culminating in
the charge of "political correctness" on the basis of, for example,
including gay in the sense of homsexual (as a less common useage than
'happy') and including the spelling "womyn" as a sometimes-used alternative
to "woman." In suggesting this was evidence of "political correctness,"
the NYT article seemed to regard it as roughly equivalent to ignorant,
pandering to extremists, lacking in quality and/or dishonest work. The
article did include a bit of rejoinder from the editors toward the end.

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------67----
Date: Sun, 16 Jun 91 08:35 PDT
Subject: Re: 5.0141 Politically Correct Dictionary?

Having not seen either periodicals or dictionaries you mention, could
you briefly describe the grounds of the controversy? Jack.

(3) --------------------------------------------------------------20----
Date: Mon, 17 Jun 91 10:01 BST
Subject: Re: pc dictionaries (5.0141)

I was interested to read about the pc dictionary with the long name. Here
in hicksville UK, however, pc-ness has yet to take hold. I would be
interested therefore to know exactly what the dictionary problem is - is
it the entries themselves, for example, or their definitions? With many

Marcus Banks
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------118---
Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1991 10:26:44 -0500
From: Dennis Baron <baron@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu>
Subject: PC Dictionary

In response to some comments and queries, here is a summary
of the PC Dictionary debate as it begins to unfold. This
will be a fairly longish entry:

The NY Times (6/11/91, pp. B1; B3) carried an article by
Richard Bernstein entitled "Dictionary Gives New Meaning to
Sensitivity," a description of the _Random House Webster's
College Dictionary_ published May 15. The article focuses
on the dictionary's "claim to have eliminated sexist
language from its definitions . . . and the scrupulous
attention it pays to the potential of words to give

For example, under the entry for _girl_ Bernstein quotes the
usage note advising "many women today resent being called
girls" and that the phrase "my girl," referring to one's
secretary, "has decreased but not disappeared." RHWCD also
notes _Eskimo_ as a (potentially) derogatory term,
recommending _Inuit_ instead. There is an appendix on how
to avoid sexist language.

The Times reports that _womyn_ is given as an alternative
spelling of _women_, as the usage note says, "to avoid the
suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequence m-e-n."

Bernstein reports that Sol Steinmetz, executive editor of
the dictionary, emphasizes the descriptive rather than
prescriptive nature of the dictionary. Bernstein turns to
Jacques Barzun for a response. Barzun's view goes something
like this: since _man_ means `human being' as well as `adult
male human being,' it is not a sexist term. John Simpson,
editor of the _OED_, had not seen the dictionary but told
the Times in a telephone interview, "It seems a pity that
some of the old meanings are being, as it were, blacklisted"
(his reference is to _gay_; the assertion, a common one now,
is that the meaning `homosexual' has all but submerged the
earlier sense of the word).

In response to the NY Times article, the Champaign-Urbana
News Gazette ran an editorial title "Your guide to the
politically correct," which concludes, "The dictionary ...
does not represent a complete victory for those who advocate
diversity through conformity." It was a slow news day.

I am still waiting to receive my copy of the dictionary from
Random House, but I have looked at it briefly in a local
bookstore. Bernstein says critics of the dictionary charge
"the very stress on the offensive meanings of words seems to
some people to be at least in part a kind of political
decision, a bending before a powerful trend" and that
"feminist views of usage have outweighed other views."
Random House is not only responding to a language trend, it
is responding to some heavy criticism of sexist bias in the
first edition of the unabridged Random House Dictionary of
the English Language, a bias that was silently corrected to
a great extent in the second edition, edited by the late
Stuart Flexner. Though it is likely to receive the most
attention, the Random House Webster's uses sex-neutrality
and insult-sensitive usage notes as only part of its hype.
Steinmetz acknowledges in the Times article that the
addition of Webster's name to RH's college dictionary line
is solely for the purpose of selling more dictionaries. The
dictionary also stresses number of items (180,000) and a hi-
tech data base as selling points, and calls itself "the
living dictionary project," which sounds to me like a
combination of recombinant DNA and evangelism.

I myself am reluctant to get into the discussion further
until I have my own copy of the dictionary to read, though I
liked what I read in the bookstore. I can note the
1. Responding to John Simpson: while the shift of _gay_ is
often asserted to be virtually complete, according to
_Webster's Dictionary of English Usage_ (Merriam-Webster),
_gay_ has not lost its early meaning at all. Perhaps the
situation is different in the UK. I'd like to see data
rather than just anecdotal evidence.
2. The Random House Webster's entry for _Ms._ does not
report the use of this title by single women as a substitute
for _Miss_ (no other dictionary reports this either, though
it is clearly common), nor does it date the term as early as
the 1930s, when it was first noted in the NY Times.
3. I fear that what may indeed prove to be a strong and
useful new dictionary will become mired in a pc slugfest,
diverting attention away from the real merits or failings of
the text.

A similar slugfest occurred 30 years ago when Webster's
Third was published. Out of that came, in response, the
_American Heritage Dictionary_ with its so-called usage
panel. The main criticism of W3 was that it was not
prescriptive enough. Opponents of the Random House
Webster's seem to suggest it is too prescriptive. The
question about RHWCD may well be whether it is descriptive
or prescriptive. But that is too complex to be debated in
the popular press.

Enough for now.

Dennis Baron, a harmful drudge
University of Illinois