Bernard Keane this morning noted that as far as conspiracy theories go, this example is rather lame. The story goes that the chardonnay swilling lefties at Macquarie Dictionary partook in a spot of linguistic engineering by changing the definition of misogyny, just to indemnify the Prime Minister against calls of hyperbole.

What’s behind this is a gross misunderstanding of firstly, what dictionaries actually do, and secondly, the actual reasons behind the dictionary’s decision. For a discussion of those points, see here. Another interesting point about this case is that if you look at Macquarie’s editor, Sue Butler’s actual comment and its gradual morphing into the story that it is today, you can literally see political spin happening at the smallest level.

Here’s what Sue Butler said:

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Since the 1980s, misogyny has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of entrenched prejudice against women rather than pathological hatred.

This would ordinarily be a good enough reason to update a dictionary definition, to bring it up to speed with the last 30 years of common Australian usage, but sometimes a word among tens of thousands just gets lost in amongst the ones needing to be brought up-to-date.

The important thing to remember is this: ‘Misogyny’ has been used to mean ‘prejudice against women’ for decades. The Oxford, and other dictionaries, have had this as a part of the definition for quite some time. Macquarie is merely catching up to usage. Gillard’s usage was just a catalyst, not the cause.

The headlines, perhaps justifiably, read like this:

Gillard’s speech prompts misogyny definition rethink

Or, perhaps less justifiably, like this:

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech forces Macquarie Dictionary to update its definition

From there, it only takes an opinion writer to skim-read the headlines before they get the impression that Macquarie has bent over backwards to change the meaning of a word and therefore, retrospectively justify the Prime Minister’s use of language, thus protecting her against the heinous charge of exaggeration.

Enter Andrew Bolt:

Macquarie to publish dictionary of Gillard English 
Macquarie Dictionary’s editors change the meaning of a word to suit Julia Gillard.
If Gillard’s misuse of language inspires Macquarie to redefine words, here’s a few more changes it should make:

  • Intercept – to now mean to act as a taxi. Alternative meaning: to welcome.
  • Promise – now to mean what you say you’ll do until it suits you to do the opposite.

The last of these has over 200 comments, largely critical of Macquarie, labelling it a political tool of the Labor Party or that it has become manipulated by the left. In amongst it all, several commenters publicise email addresses for the dictionary and call for others to voice their disapproval of this entirely justified and frankly, rather late update.

I’m not writing this to defend Gillard necessarily, nor Abbott, by any means. I’m writing this to defend lexicography from charges that it is a political enterprise. Of course words and their meanings can be used for political expedience, as George Orwell famously pointed out, but lexicographers are not politicians; they’re closer to scientists. They sift through historic and contemporary sources observing words in their natural environment, looking for anything out of the ordinary, and when necessary, refining or updating definitions.

Language changes. Sometimes at a glacial pace and sometimes exceedingly fast. The job of the lexicographer is made all the more difficult when there are people in this world who cling to the familiarity of the meaning of words and quixotically resist change. The wrath of these people, seen in letters pages and the Column 8s of the world, is unfairly lumped onto the lexicographers who are just trying to do their job in methodically and meticulously cataloguing the variation and gradual changes in language.

I will say however, that Sue Butler could have potentially phrased (or timed) her response better to avoid the charge that Macquarie is bending the semantic knee to the whims of the Prime Minister, as it were.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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