Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Arabs, Hoosiers, and Quayle

Check out this little item. Under pressure, an online thesaurus removed the word "beggar" as a synonym for "arab."

This reminds me of a minor controversy involving former Vice President Dan Quayle. When he was a senator from Indiana, he wrote to the president of Merriam-Webster, protesting the following alternative definitions for "hoosier."
1. Used as a noun, "an awkward, unhandy or unskilled person;
esp. an ignorant rustic."
2. Used as a verb, "to loaf on or botch a job."

Merriam-Webster wrote back:

It is true that this unabridged dictionary
shows two senses of the noun hoosier, one of
which uses those unflattering terms, but those
have to be seen as two different words, not as
two definitions for a resident of Indiana.

* * *

Dictionary makers do not truly define words.
Rather, they record the language as it is used.
What this means is that if you use the word hoosier
to mean quick, smart, skillful, etc., and others use
the word in the same sense in edited text, then in
time it will begin to appear in dictionaries in that
sense, and no one would be more delighted that we.

That would have been a good response to the "arab" controversy, too. This incident was used as another reason to mock Quayle. I wonder if the left will be consistent in its defense of dictionaries.


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