Miscreant word behavior

Posted by on October 23, 2012

If you type “dictionary australia” into the Google News search box it will deliver up a cartload of stories—nearly 1500 of them when I tried it. There is shocking news that the most respected Australian dictionary, Macquarie, has updated its definition of misogyny in response to a parliamentary speech that prime minister Julia Gillard gave recently. In her speech Ms. Gillard accused the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of sexism and misogyny. The editor of Macquarie has announced that the dictionary would broaden its definition of misogyny, and it is this fact that the media has decided is newsworthy. Some stories merely report the fact. Most others weigh in with an opinion about the matter, and many criticize the dictionary for tailoring the definition to fit Ms. Gillard’s use of the word.

Ms. Gillard, in her 15-minute speech, lays out her case well, drawing on many public words and deeds of Mr. Abbott that do not reveal him as a hater of women, but that support a view that he holds entrenched prejudice against women. Anyone listening to the speech would agree that Ms. Gillard clearly uses misogyny and misogynist in a broader sense that means not hatred of women, but entrenched prejudice against them.

In fact misogyny has been used in this sense for decades—beginning in the 1970s, when the effects of feminism began to appear in social discourse—and many dictionaries have already noted this broader use. The OED, for example, has an omnibus definition that covers all bases succinctly: “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.”

Lexicographers and dictionary publishers do not lie awake at night, worrying that tomorrow’s news might suddenly catapult one of their definitions into the limelight and reveal it to be out of date. But it does happen from time to time. Dictionaries are big books: expensive and time-consuming to edit. Lexicographers tasked with updating a particular alphabetic run are never budgeted with enough time and money to research every word individually and investigate whether its mission has crept sufficiently to merit the addition of another sense, or the broadening of a standing one. So new usages do often slip through the cracks and fail to get the documentation in a definition that they may deserve. A dictionary’s failure to note a change in meaning of a word doesn’t mean that the meaning hasn’t changed; it just means that the dictionary hasn’t kept up. The real newsworthy event here, from the perspective of lexicography, is that the Macquarie dictionary was found to be out of date in its definition. In fact, Macquarie probably should have updated its definition of misogyny a decade ago, as many other dictionaries did, to reflect the broader usage of misogyny and misogynist.

In fairness to Macquarie, it’s a common failing of dictionaries. To take another, less contentious example that might well fall in the same alphabetic run as misogyny, consider the word miscreant. Most dictionaries define it as a noun denoting a criminal or wrongdoer. But usage reveals miscreant to have a much wider range of behavior:

…advice to all of those doubting academic highbrows out there. To quote that animated miscreant Bart Simpson, ” Don’t have a cow, man! ” This actually…

…merely of wayfarers but of entire intellectual traditions. The name of this huge miscreant is Critical Thinking – a name uttered by professors and students with more awe than…

…Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada A: American Express is not the only miscreant here. We have received several letters just like yours about credit-card companies. In…

…ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California. Conquering Caulerpa — A Marine Miscreant Sometimes referred to as ” killer algae, ” C. taxifolia flourishes in warm…

…proliferating cells. It turns out that, in at least some cases, a miscreant protein traps p53, explains Princeton’s Levine. P53 can’t get anywhere near…

…the need for Western aid. Incidentally, ” The Ukraine ” is a miscreant phrase from the days of the Czarist Empire. Ukraine is a recognized independent nation…

Not only has the noun use of miscreant expanded considerably from its original meaning, it is also used attributively to mean “unexpected, out of place, undesirable, troublesome.” Few contemporary dictionaries take note of this.

Word meanings evolve continuously, and lexicographers do their best to keep up, but any given contemporary dictionary is a snapshot of language at a particular time, and that time is usually the recent past. Hats off to the Macquarie editor who quickly acknowledged that Australia’s flagship dictionary needed to make over its definition of misogyny and then proceeded to do it.

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