The Dictionary Has Offensive Entries, and It Should

The latest uproar in LGBT-land is an offensive definition of “gay” in Apple’s dictionary. In a move right out of 1984, my fellow gays and allies are demanding that Apple remove the offensive definition from their dictionaries. They’re wrong, and an attempt to change a canonical source of language over an offensive definition is far more offensive than the definition itself.

What’s a dictionary? To trot out a tired phrase, the dictionary defines dictionary as:

a book or electronic resource that lists the words of a language (typically in alphabetical order) and gives their meaning, or gives the equivalent words in a different language, often also providing information about pronunciation, origin, and usage:

What a dictionary *isn’t* is a normative look at what we desire words to mean. There are a LOT of offensive entries in the dictionary, and Apple isn’t the culprit. Not sure of their source, but I found the same definition of “gay” in the Oxford English Dictionary. But here’s one that’s worse. Check out some of the definitions for “woman“:

  • a female worker or employee.
  • a wife, girlfriend, or lover:he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him
  • a female paid to clean someone’s house and carry out general domestic duties.
  • a peremptory form of address to a woman: don’t be daft, woman

So according to the dictionary, women are employees, girlfriends, possessions, maids, and often daft. I’m more offended by that than I am by the definition of “gay.” But let’s not shove those usages into the memory hole and pretend they don’t exist. Knowing they exist is an important part of our language. Pretending they don’t is a travesty.