Unfair Words


Striking a blow against hate speech, Merriam-Webster has removed a list of synonyms for homosexual from the online version of its widely used collegiate thesaurus and promises to do the same with future print editions. The decision was prompted by complaints from gay activists, who noticed the two-decade-old entry only last month.

Merriam-Webster said the excision is consistent with its longstanding policy of eliminating entries for ethnic and racial minorities. In the quest to make the thesaurus as inoffensive as possible, the homosexual synonyms somehow were overlooked. "Merriam-Webster acknowledges that inclusion of these words was the result of an error," said a company statement, "and it fully extends its apologies."

The activists who won this immediate and unconditional surrender are not about to rest on their laurels. "Now that we're starting to do research, it's actually more prevalent than we thought," a spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation told The New York Times. "It's really not just an issue of Merriam-Webster."

Someday, if these intrepid word hunters persevere, a homophobe who sees two men holding hands and pulls out his thesaurus to look up a suitable slur will find himself verbally disarmed. If the editors of all thesauruses and dictionaries can be convinced to ignore anti-gay epithets, the memory of these hurtful words will fade away, and so will the hatred they represent.

Well, maybe not. Before we are swept away by visions of a prejudice-free utopia, perhaps we should reflect on the cost of bowdlerizing reference books at the behest of outraged interest groups.

"While a dictionary needs to be comprehensive, a thesaurus doesn't," a Merriam-Webster spokeswoman told the Times, defending the exclusion of "unfair words." But a thesaurus, like a dictionary, is not merely prescriptive. It is supposed to reflect an objective reality: the way that people actually speak. Cutting out offensive words amounts to pretending that the world is a kinder, gentler place than it really is.

This game is not likely to have much of an impact on bigots, but it will impede the work of people who rely on reference books. If everyone follows the Merriam-Webster model, the novelist constructing dialogue for a racist character and the history student tracing the evolution of derogatory terms for immigrant groups will be deprived of a useful tool.

Merriam-Webster's critics did have at least one legitimate complaint: They said the thesaurus did not clearly distinguish between generally accepted terms such as gay and slurs such as fag and fruit. But this problem could be remedied by adding appropriate warnings.

An interesting challenge is how to deal with terms that have been adopted by the people they were meant to disparage. The slogan of the gay activist group ACT-UP–"We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!"–springs to mind.

The Monty Python movie Life of Brian, which has something to offend just about everyone, parodies this tendency to hijack the enemy's language in a scene where the protagonist is dismayed to learn that his father was a Roman soldier. "I'm a kike, a yid, a hebe, a hooknose, a Red Sea pedestrian," he says defiantly, "and I'm proud of it."

The two thesauruses on my desk–Roget's II and Webster's New World–do not include any of these terms, but I don't see why. It's a denial of anti-Semitism to make believe that Jews have never been called names they didn't like.

Jew itself was once considered derogatory (and in some quarters still is); the Reform movement of Judaism tried to popularize Hebrew instead. Similarly, yid is even today thought to be an epithet, though it simply means Jew in Yiddish.

I grew up in a Pennsylvania town where people were not shy about expressing their prejudices, but it wasn't until I went to college that I encountered jew as a verb. "He tried to jew me down," a guy in my dorm said, complaining about some recent transaction.

The comment made me uncomfortable, but I did learn something from the experience. On more than one occasion since then, I have used jew as a verb in Scrabble (proper nouns being forbidden).

The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary defines jew as "to bargain with" and warns that it's "an offensive term." Refreshingly, the dictionary also lists yid, kike, hebe, and hooknose–at least until the editors hear from the Anti-Defamation League.