Have you heard the silly one about Donald Trump?
Seems he was doing a general knowledge crossword aboard Air Force One. At one point he turned to his secretary and asked: “What’s the word for ‘woman’, four letters, blank-u-n-t?”
“Why, Mr President,” said the secretary, “it’s ‘aunt’ of course”. And Trump said: “Got an eraser?”
Well, I told you it was silly, didn’t? The point is that Americans use the implied word metonymically, to describe a woman, whereas the chivalrous Britons only ever use it metaphorically, to describe a man.
But the British aren’t so chivalrous that they can’t rival Americans in the number of synonyms, some of them pejorative, of ‘woman’. If you don’t believe me, look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – it has loads of them.
Actually, according to a petition currently boasting 30,000 signatories, too many. Our noble fighters for women’s rights insist that “sexist definitions” of the word woman be expurgated from that august publication.
Specifically, their list of offensive “synonyms for woman” includes “bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy and filly”. Those victims of lexicographic assault must have been going alphabetically, which is why they didn’t get to ‘gorgon’ and ‘harridan’, not to mention ‘slag’, ‘slattern’ and ‘slut’.
This reminds me of the story (this one real) involving our first lexicographer Dr Johnson. At the 1755 launch of his Dictionary of the English Language, a woman of a certain age asked him why there were no dirty words in that publication.
“I can see, madam,” replied the great wit, “that you have been looking for them.”
I understand the petitioners’ problem, but then they should also understand mine. As a professionally trained linguist, I’m hurt to see so much ignorance of my discipline.
Dictionaries have two principal functions: descriptive, always, and prescriptive, sometimes. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary combines both, by listing words and also recommending their correct usage.
The Oxford dictionary, like most others, is mainly descriptive: it lists and defines as many English words as humanly possible. Since English has by far the greatest vocabulary of all European languages, that humanly possible number is large.
The Oxford Corpus, for example, contains almost 2.1 billion words used in the Anglophone world. The more concise big OED still includes a respectable 58 million entries, and I’m man enough to admit that my vocabulary falls short of that number.
By including a word, the OED passes neither moral nor aesthetic judgement on the concept the word designates. It simply states that the word exists.
Almost every word sits at the core of what linguists call its paradigm: the sum total of its cognates and synonyms, close, remote or tangential. No two words in any language can be full synonyms, that is identical in meaning and stylistic nuance, both denotation and connotation.
If two words denoted and connoted identical things, one of them would eventually die out. There would be no need for it.
Now, if we examine the paradigm of most words, we’ll find many offshoots we wouldn’t use, some we’d use in some circumstances and not in others, even a few that might conceivably offend us if someone used them in our presence.
That may matter a lot to some people, less to others and nothing at all to still others. People exercise their own judgement in usage, and that can be variable. For example, I may use the word implied in the silly joke above when talking to my friends, but not when trying to talk a policeman out of giving me a ticket.
But lexicographers don’t judge words, although they may hint at their usage by adding parenthetic descriptors, such as ‘slang’, ‘offensive’, ‘vulgar’ or ‘archaic’.
Those scholars merely record words, which is why they are called ‘lexicographers’, from the Greek for ‘words’ and ‘writers’, and not ‘ithicographers’, from the Greek for ‘morals’ and ‘writers’.
Now that we’re talking lexical nuances, what’s worse than an ignorant moron? The answer is, a politicised ignorant moron.
That, I’m afraid, accurately describes those capable of writing or signing a petition demanding that the compilers of Oxford dictionaries “eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women”, while including “examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.”
Why not simply eliminate the intermediate stages and first ban all dictionaries and then burn them in a present-day answer to the practice popular in Germany, c. 1933? Are the authors and signatories of the petition aware of how accurate this analogy is?
A society that allows such people to dictate their terms and enforce compliance is a totalitarian society. If that’s the ideal to strive for, we’re getting closer by the day.
P.S. Speaking of totalitarianism, I have a good friend who works for one of the French ministries. She reads my pieces and used to do so during her lunch break. But not any longer: her office has put a block on my blog. The official reason is its content of sex and violence.
When I complained to an English friend that my pieces contain neither sex nor violence, he said: “Perhaps that’s why they are blocked.”
But, seriously speaking, I understand those bureaucrats perfectly. What were they supposed to say, that they disagree with the opinions expressed? ‘Sex and violence’ is so much safer and less controversial.