HO knew that renowned Oxford linguist and specialist in gender and language Deborah Cameron has a blog? She does--it's called language: a feminist guide. Many members of the DSNA will appreciate some of her forthright postings, such as "How to write a bullshit article about women's language," or her response to Naomi Wolf's Guardian article exhorting women to stop using "destructive speech patterns."
Of particular interest is Cameron's June 30 posting, "Dictionaries, dick-tionaries, and dyketionaries. She opens with the amusing story of the British Potato Board's campaign against the term couch potato (they contended that the term was a slur on the nutritious potato). From this story, Cameron highlights "the popular belief that dictionaries function as a kind of supreme authority on the existence, validity and meaning of words. As if removing ‘couch potato’ from the dictionary were equivalent to banishing it from the language."
When new terms appear in the OED, there is often an outcry as if the dictionary were responsible for creating and authorizing them, rather than merely registering usage. One such outcry marked the appearance of cisgender, and Cameron comments, "Since the OED is a historical dictionary, whose aim is to chart the development of English vocabulary over time, it’s full of words which are obsolete, arcane, useless, offensive or frankly silly. Like scrolloping, a word that appeared once in the work of Virginia Woolf. Or phlogiston, an 18th century name for a chemical element that never actually existed. Learned discussions of phlogiston completely misrepresented reality, but the word was once in regular use, so the OED records it. It’s now doing the same for cisgender: even if you think the concept is to 21st century gender theory what phlogiston was to 18th century chemistry, there’s no good argument for not including it in a historical dictionary of English."
However, having acknowledged the descriptive function of the OED (and dictionaries in general), Cameron proceeds to discuss what has been called the "male bias of mainstream lexicography." Mary Daly dubbed the result of this bias the "dick-tionary"--see Daly and Caputi’s Webster's New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987). But not much has changed:feminist dictionaries have been conspicuously absent in recent histories of lexicography, the sources from which word-usages are gleaned remain heavily dominated by male writers, and illustrative quotations are not monitored to avoid sexism.
Cameron names the feminist works--a "'utopian' subgenre"--that remain insufficiently considered by historians of lexicography: Daly and Caputi’s Wickedary, Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig's Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary (1979), Joreen and Marleen Dixon’s Dictionary of Women’s Liberation (1970), Rosalue Maggio, The Nonsexist Wordfinder (1987), Jane Mills’s Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society (1989), and Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler's A Feminist Dictionary (1985), and the online Dyketionary.
Have recent technological developments addressed the problem? Cameron comments, "On one hand, new technology has enabled mainstream dictionaries to expand their coverage and widen the range of sources they trawl through, thus reducing some of the old biases (it’s also worth pointing out that many mainstream lexicographers today are women: they may or may not be feminists, but they aren’t bearded Victorian patriarchs who find women alien and faintly repulsive). On the other hand, new media have democratised the process of recording and defining words, bringing us completely crowd-sourced examples of amateur/popular lexicography like Urban Dictionary, or Dyketionary."
However, she adds, "The response to Oxford’s announcement about cisgender shows that the authority of the established, mainstream dictionary has not been superseded. It also shows that there are still gaps in the public understanding of what lexicographers do, and how they go about it."
- [The initial letter in this posting comes from Florio's 1659 Vocabulario Italiano & Inglese.]