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Jewish World Review June 14, 1999 /31 Sivan 5759

Bob Greene

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Should a dictionary
ever tell you
to keep quiet? --
STICKS AND STONES notwithstanding, words do have the power to hurt.

And certain words -- almost always uttered with mean intent -- have the power to hurt more than others.

Still, it's a little difficult to understand a decision by the editors of the new edition of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary.

The editors have placed what amounts to warning labels on certain words -- have advised people who consult the dictionary not to use those words.

Take, for example, an ugly word that has often been used to deride and insult people of Chinese descent.

Before defining the word, the editors of the dictionary issue their warning:

"This term is a slur and must be avoided. It is used with disparaging intent and is perceived as highly insulting."

The same warning is given before the definitions of words used to insult other ethnic and religious groups, including Italians and Jews. But the strongest warning label of all is placed above the definition of the word that has for so long been used to insult African-Americans.

The warning itself runs 110 words -- 110 words to advise readers of the dictionary that they should never say one word. Here is part of the warning label:

"The term . . . is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War. . . . (Some definitions of the word) represent meanings that are deeply disparaging and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense. (Another definition), however, is sometimes used among African-Americans in a neutral or familiar way. . . ."

Keep in mind: These warnings are not part of the dictionary's definitions of the words -- that comes later, underneath the warning labels, when it is explained again that these words are disparaging in intent. The separate warning labels are just that -- they warn people not to say the words or write them.

What's wrong with this? After all, the words are, in fact, inherently ugly. The publisher of the dictionary's official position is that to warn people against saying certain words is "an unparalleled move," and is "pioneering a new sensitivity and knowledge of the weight of certain words and terms." According to Wendalyn Nichols, editorial director of dictionaries at Random House, "Dictionaries are already describing the fact that such terms are likely to be hurtful. Why not make the warning explicit? Why dance around the subject? For the first time a major American dictionary is sticking its neck out over offensive terms; I'm proud of us for doing it."

But there's another way to look at this -- which is that dictionaries are supposed to be the ultimate in just-the-facts, ma'am. A dictionary exists to be precise, dispassionate, exact and neutral. A dictionary is supposed to be the Associated Press of the reference world -- not a place for commentary or opinion, but a place for the best objective version of the truth possible.

Thus, one could argue, a dictionary is well within its mission to define a word that is used to insult ethnic groups as just that -- in the definition, a dictionary can and should point out that the word often is meant to cause pain.

That's different than posting the warning label atop the definition, though. A case can be made that no dictionary should be in the business of telling people that they should not use certain words. If the definition of the ugly word is written with enough specificity, then readers will know that the word is hurtful, and that only a person without manners or feelings would speak it.

And besides -- do you really think that people who use such words turn to the dictionary for guidance? That someone who wants to use rancid language to deride, say, African-Americans or Jews will consult the dictionary before deciding whether to say the words?

There's another solution to this, even more drastic than warning labels, a solution that has some merit: Leave these words out of the dictionary entirely. Yes, the words exist -- but if they're so ugly that they should never be used, then expel them from the pages of dictionaries. Declare them, in effect, to be non-words: Make them officially invisible among cultured and civil people. But that's a proposal to discuss at some later date.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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