Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Dictionary is Not an Authority

There’s a really useful tool out there –  it’s called a dictionary. And it does an excellent job – if you come across a word and you don’t have a clue what it means, you can look in this wonderful book and get a rough, simplistic idea.

The problem with the poor dictionary is that it is often poorly used – and misused – by fools who are either ignorant or wilfully bigoted. We really need to look at the limits of this book.

Firstly, the dictionary is not an ultimate authority. It’s a brief answer, a vague idea, as concise as it can be to get the idea across. It is the Twitter of reference books.

And for most subjects we know this. If I look up “carrot” in the dictionary, most people will acknowledge I do not know all there is to know about carrots and if I truly want to understand carrots, I should probably pick up a horticultural text book. We know that legal and medical terms are going to be, at best, simplistically represented and know we need to find a lawyer or a doctor if we want to know more. Anyone deciding to base their argument on, say, a philosophical concept or term using the dictionary is going to be laughed at at best, or automatically lose whatever argument they’re trying to make at least.

Yet the minute we move into a social justice framework, the ultimate authority changes. We don’t need lived experience, we don’t need experts who have examined centuries of social disparities and discrimination, we don’t need societal context. We don’t need sociology or history – no, we have THE DICTIONARY! That ultimate tome of oracular insight, the last word on any debate!

It’s patently ridiculous and you can see that by applying it to any other field of knowledge. But the privileged will continually trot out simplistic, twitter-style dictionary definitions as if they are the last word and the ultimate authority. No-one would drag out the dictionary to debate science with a scientist. But they’re more than willing to trot out a dictionary definition of racism over any sociological analysis. A dictionary is not the ultimate authority - they’re a rough guide for you to discover the simple meaning of words you’ve never heard before – not an ultimate definition of what the word means and all its contexts.

Secondly, you can’t ignore common usage or context to excuse your ridiculous bigotry, especially if you’re going to try to drag up ancient historical usages or picking number 3 in the “obscure meanings” list. Yes f@ggot means a meatball or bundle of sticks for burning – do we even remotely think that that is what most people mean when they use the term? Does anyone with half an ounce of common sense think this is what they mean when they scream it at someone? When someone says something is “so gay” do you think they’re referencing happiness? Or the negative connotations of being gay? Why does anyone think these ridiculous excuses work?

Does “phobia” mean an irrational fear of something? Yes, in a medical context. Homophobia is not a medical term, it’s not a diagnosis – so why are you applying it in this case? Do they have the same root? Yes, of course they do – that doesn’t mean they have the same literal meaning. Context matters.

Thirdly, words borrowed from foreign languages often lose or adapt their meaning. Especially if we’re not looking at a word, but a part of a word and doubly so for ancient languages. Do you know what this means? It means homophobia is not eternally linked to fear! Homophobia means prejudice, contempt, hatred or fear of gay people. No, a homophobe doesn’t have to be scared of gay people –  no, not even when “phobos” means fear in Greek. Because we’re NOT SPEAKING GREEK! Have you looked at our language? Can you not see the gazillion elements of Latin and Greek we’ve grabbed and slapped in all over the place – but suddenly when it comes prejudice you want a literal translation? Uh-huh. Language doesn’t work that way.

And all this is before we consider who the authorities are behind the dictionary – you’d be amazed at how many marginalised people are unimpressed by you quoting the words of straight white men at them as being the last words of authority on the prejudice we face every day.

The dictionary is not an authority and it’s not a quotable text. It’s a tool for learning a basic meaning when you’re flummoxed not an ace to be played in an argument, it’s childish, it’s infantile and it goes against even the most basic knowledge of reference material.

This piece originally appeared at Womanist Musings