Andami Kong Alam: Words on Words

Photo from

Photo from

Someone put forth the proposition today that it is useless to insist on the dictionary definitions of words because these are archaic while language is dynamic, and, anyway, the dictionary was written by men.

In support of the argument, this graphic:

From Internet

From Internet

The context of the statement, or as much of it as I was prompted to engage with the person over was this:

The slang word “ho”, for whore, is used derogatorily and because there is nothing at all wrong with people enjoying sex, it should not be so.

Some women, against whom words like ho and whore are used against most often, are reclaiming the word to, I suppose, render it harmless, and remove the stigma attached to enjoying sex.

I have no quarrel with that. I am a fan of sex, of women, and of women who enjoy sex. There definitely is a double standard when it comes to sexuality, and that should change.

As a person who works with words, however, I am having trouble with the argument that dictionary definitions are just the opinions of these white guys who have long since died, and were long dead when “ho” was first used in print (in 1965, according to Merriam-Webster).

While it is true that these white guys who compiled the dictionaries were affected by their own biases on what constitutes proper English, they certainly did not pull the words in the dictionary out of their asses.

I posited that dictionaries reflect usage and not the other way around. As a language guide, a dictionary cannot insist, for example, that “fish” means, say, mongoose, and get away with it.

People who actually use the language would probably say something eventually. For example, fish when they mean fish, and probably something along the lines of: “What the fuck? That is a mongoose.”

And, at any rate, things have changed a lot in the dictionary business since cartoon Herbert Coleridge and cartoon Noah Webster made their dictionaries.

Here, for example, is how Merriam-Webster the company, actually decides what to put in a dictionary:

Before a new word can be added to the dictionary, it must have enough citations to show that it is widely used. But having a lot of citations is not enough; in fact, a large number of citations might even make a word more difficult to define, because many citations show too little about the meaning of a word to be helpful. A word may be rejected for entry into a general dictionary if all of its citations come from a single source or if they are all from highly specialized publications that reflect the jargon of experts within a single field.

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

Language is an ever-changing thing, as we see every year (usually accompanied by a groan) with the addition of words like “selfie” to the dictionary.

To say, however, that dictionary definitions do not reflect what words mean, or rather what words mean to most people who use a certain language, is a dangerous proposition.

If anything can mean anything because you say so, then how will we understand each other? Arbitrary meanings and usage was taken to an extreme, for example, in the Balkans of the 1990s when “the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats each began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness” despite having the same Slavic root.

Assuming we are speaking the same language (as much as that is philosophically possible, I guess), to change the meaning of a word, you need to change how it is used.

To do that, you will have to engage people with more than just a cartoon.

The cartoon, in any case, talks more about how dialects were left out of the mainstream of English and does not suggest that “ho”, or whore from which it came, was included in the dictionary as a tool for the oppressor. Merriam-Webster, in fact, says men and women can be whores.

Do that often enough and long enough, and the definition will change along with usage. That will probably never happen for fish and mongooses, of course, since they do not usually bother with words anyway. But people can change, or enough people can change for society to change. And, with that, the way we talk and think about each other can too.

PS: I really try to avoid engaging in talk about gender because I am a man and am therefore too privileged despite being brown and poor to really talk about it with much credibility. This is not about gender, really, but about words.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s