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Labeling Words

open dictionary 2

Photograph by Eli Gerber

Dictionaries occupy a special place in academe. In our libraries, unabridged dictionaries regularly lie open on pedestals, where we can go stand before them; the staging suggests their authority as a place to find answers about words. Rarely do we flip to the front of it to check what dictionary it is, from what year. Then I have read many an academic article that mentions a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary or another dictionary but fails to cite the work in the Works Cited, as if a dictionary is not edited by hands as human as those that work on any other book. As if a dictionary is a reference in a different category from other works. (This seems like an apt moment for full disclosure: I feel sure if I went back through all of my publications, I would find that I am not exempt from this practice, although I try to be careful.)

Of course, dictionaries are very human products, specific to a time, a place, and a cultural moment, as well as to that dictionary’s editors’ philosophy. The big standard dictionaries that we now take for granted are remarkable achievements, meticulous in their compilation and revision; and we turn to them as authorities on words with good reason. But they involve human decisions at every turn.

Easy enough to say, but what does this really mean? To bring the point home to students in a very real way, I have found it effective to recreate some of the decisions dictionary editors must make. And one of the most accessible entrées I have found is usage labels.

Every dictionary has its own set of usage labels. The American Heritage dictionaries, as one example, use: Nonstandard, Offensive, Vulgar, Derogatory, Slang, Informal, and Usage Problem. Before we start the exercise itself, students and I often have productive conversations about the difference between “vulgar” and “offensive,” “informal” and “slang,” using the descriptions in American Heritage as our guide.

Then it’s time to apply these labels. I usually select 10 to 12 words that do or reasonably could have usage labels and reproduce their definitions on a handout with blanks in every place where there could be a usage label. For instance:

sleazebag n. _____________ A sleazy person.

whore n. _____________ 1. A prostitute. 2. _____________ A person considered sexually promiscuous. 3. _____________ A person considered as having compromised principles for personal gain.

I eavesdrop as students work through in pairs what labels they think are most appropriate. Students are usually asking just the right questions: What are the criteria? Is this word always offensive? Is this word rebellious in a slangy kind of way or just informal? And so on. (Last year, as I walked around the room, I also learned that some students didn’t realize what prick referred to before it referred to a person.)

We then go through the list together, and I share what usage labels the dictionary editors of whatever dictionary we’re using included for each entry. Suddenly the editors’ decisions come under a different kind of scrutiny—and are sometimes challenged.

For example, in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2011), not one of the definitions of whore has a usage label. Many students disagree with this decision; they opted for “offensive” for at least some of the definitions.

If we so choose, we can then check the online version of the dictionary, where it turns out that the editors have added “Often offensive” for the second definition.

Has something changed radically between 2011 and 2015? Probably not. Was the word whore often offensive in 2011 when the print version came out? Yes.

As this entry makes clear, dictionary editors revisit earlier decisions just like most of the rest of us and can change their minds—made all the easier and more efficient now that many dictionaries are available and regularly updated online. (Interestingly, slut similarly had no usage labels in the print edition from 2011 but now has “Often offensive” for its primary definition of “A person considered to be sexually promiscuous.”)

If students never look at a dictionary entry quite the same way again, the activity has done its job. I hope students will continue to see standard dictionaries as invaluable resources for information about words’ pronunciations, definitions, etymologies, and more—as fully authoritative, but in a very human way.

And if some of you reading this realize that perhaps you haven’t always been including dictionaries in your references and decide to change your ways, it will be a happy byproduct. We will be giving dictionary editors more of the credit they’re due and will have lowered the pedestal on which we often put dictionaries one responsible notch.

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