Words ... so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them! —Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Notebooks, 1841-1852.
Even dictionaries are fleeing the printed paper for the Internet.
The Oxford English Dictionary, noble father of our language and model of all dictionaries, will not print the eagerly awaited third edition, in the making for 21 years, but it will be released in a digital version.
The decision is a purely economic one. The complete OED is made of 20 volumes and has never turned a profit from the day, a century and half ago, that the first edition was published. The condensed edition, the one most of us are familiar with, is called Oxford Dictionary of English.
The idea to collect in alphabetical order the words of the English language started to spread in the 16th century. The first real dictionary was compiled and published by Samuel Johnson in 1755 and it remained the standard for 150 years. The plan of the Oxford English Dictionary was hatched in 1879 at Oxford University. The first complete collection was released in 1928. It took 61 years to update it and it is still on sale today.
The OED contains 291,500 words and 2.5 million sources, references and quotations.
Perhaps one of the best and most interesting ways to chronicle and monitor the progress made by the gay community is to look up old dictionaries and see how language, and perceptions, have changed though the years.
For example, the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines gay as follows:
- Addicted to social pleasures and dissipations. Often euphemistically: Of loose or immoral life.
Esp. in gay dog, a man given to reveling or self-indulgence;
Not quite flattering. Certainly not politically correct by today's standards.
In 2011, dictionaries entries for gay as a noun, will simply read:
- Someone who practices homosexuality; having a sexual attraction to persons of the same sex. Much better.
The earliest the dictionary has for it is 1935 (as an adjective), and 1971 (as a noun) — though the word goes back at least as far as the 14th century in English in its original sense of “light-hearted, exuberantly cheerful, merry".
In 1938 "Bringing Up Baby" was the first film to use the word gay to mean homosexual. Cary Grant, in one scene, ends up having to wear a lady’s robe. When another character asks about why he is wearing that, he responds,
ad-libbing: "Because I just went gay". At the time, audiences didn’t get the reference so the line was thought to have meant “I just decided to be carefree.”
The word gay is now standard in its use to refer to people whose orientation is to the same sex, in large part because it is the term that most gay people prefer in referring to themselves. Gay is distinguished from homosexual primarily by the emphasis it places on the cultural and social aspects of homosexuality as opposed to sexual practice.
Along with gay the other word that has gone through a dictionary's metamorphosis of sort is: Homosexuality.
In 1923 Merriam Webster's referred to it as: "morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex"
In 1934 it changed it to: "eroticism for one of the same sex".
In 2011 it says: “sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one's own sex”.
We can, however, find consolation for the disparaging references of the early days in how even Heterosexuality was defined in 1901 by the Dorland's Medical Dictionary: "Abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex ". Something we can all agree with!
The constant evolution of dictionaries is fundamental, especially in a democracy. In his famous novel "1984", still relevant sixty years after its publication, George Orwell introduces the Dictionary of Newspeak. It is designed to reduce interpretability in society by cutting out the number of words listed. Every word excluded is not a word and thus it has no meaning. It becomes a better instrument than police and surveillance cameras to exercise control. Speaking and thinking in Newspeak prevents the emergence of new cultural objects or entities and muffles awareness and knowledge. After all if you have the right word to identify something you can perceive it.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have discovered with great dismay that three major English dictionaries have revised their definitions of marriage to reflect changes in the way that people and society have been using the word.
Merriam-Webster recognized the increased discussion among supporters and opponents of gay marriage by adding the following to its earlier definition of marriage: "(2):the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.". The dictionary made the change in 2003, one year before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of marriage has included same-sex couples since 2000: “The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex." The OED's earliest citation comes from the New York Times in 1975: "The move toward legally-sanctioned marriages between persons of the same sex."
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary announced in 2003 that it was also changing the definition of marriage to read:"the legal or religious union of two people."
Yes, we have come a long way. To the point that we can now find the following entry in some dictionaries: Gaydar- the supposed ability of homosexuals to recognize one another by means of very slight indications.
I guess Gaybies is not far behind: Young children adopted by, born to, or raised by a same sex couple, the off springs of homosexual couples.
...And the last word added to the new digital edition of the OED? - Vuvuzela.