When The Dictionary Is Broke

With some regularity, someone writes about cute popular words and phrases that are played out. Some are trite. Some are memes. Some just outlived their useful lifespan. Some people will disagree, and words, being words, will either continue to be used or not, because they don’t like being told what to do. But what about the dictionary (forgive the personification, for a moment) telling us what words we’re allowed to use?

We all misspeak or misuse words sometimes. Maybe we’ve latched onto phrases our parents handed down incorrectly. Or perhaps we picked them up from a movie, television, or social media with no clue they were being used inappropriately—or even worse, offensively.

It’s OK; most of us unknowingly use problematic words and phrases from time to time without thinking about their origins or how they could hurt some groups of people. What’s not OK is to keep doing it once you know it’s wrong.

Of course, dictionaries are things, not people, and thus lack sentience. They can’t be offended. They can’t decide right from wrong. They have no feelings. But the people who write dictionaries do. Who are these people? Beats me.

Is this the thoughtful product of a renowned lexicographer, historian of language with decades of perspective, or the ideas of an intern studying gender and grievance? Does it matter to you? It does to me, as dictionaries provide the mechanisms by which our shared language is given meaning. Judges turn to it for definitions. Writers as well. Regular people look up words to find out what they mean. We expect dictionaries to be above the fray, to contain legitimate definitions of words for the whole of society. Okay, not the Urban Dictionary, but real dictionaries.

There are plenty of words out there to choose from in the, ahem, dictionary. But, to help narrow it down, we rounded up some commonly misused words and phrases that have the potential to offend.

We’re not going to leave you verbally high and dry either. We’re providing some better alternatives for each. Take a look and see how many you may be misusing.

What makes this characterization particularly troubling isn’t that people are using words or phrases wrongly, such as “presently” for now, or “begs the question” for raising the question. The characterization of “misusing” words is false. The condemned words aren’t being “misused” at all, but are words that whoever came up with this would prefer you not use because they deem them offensive or problematic. Some unnamed, unknown gnome toiling away in the boiler room of dictionary [dot] com wants his feelings to dictate your word choice in the name of “misuse.”

You can read for yourself the particulars, but to give a law-related example:

Hysterical

If you find something or someone to be hysterical, meaning funny, that’s OK. If you’re calling someone’s actions hysterical because they’re being emotional, then you may want to reconsider.

Far too often women are dubbed hysterical for being outspoken or showing their feelings, and that wades into problematic, sexist territory due to the history of the term.

Hysterical’s earliest meaning was “of, relating to, or characterized by hysteria,” and while we now think of hysteria as irrational panic, it was, for centuries, a medical diagnosis. Hysteria comes from the Greek hysterikós, which means “suffering in the womb.”

So, yeah, the ancient Greeks believed that when a woman was behaving irrationally—or in a way that they considered to be irrational—it was because her uterus was literally wandering around her body causing trouble (Kory Stamper, “What It Really Means To Call A Woman Hysterical“).

Plus, have you ever heard a man being called hysterical … we’re guessing not.

If “we’re guessing not,” assuming the writer doesn’t suffer from multiple personality disorder (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s likely because “we’ve” never ventured off the Oberlin campus. This is the gender studies version of the word “hysterical,” which is absolutely and unquestionably believed by all the people who write ethnographies for their Ph.D.s.

Even at the dictionary [dot] com mothership, “hysteria” has an actual meaning.

  • an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterized by irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc.
  • a psychoneurotic disorder characterized by violent emotional outbreaks, disturbances of sensory and motor functions, and various abnormal effects due to autosuggestion.
  • Psychiatry, conversion disorder.

There’s nothing there about it only applying to women. And a better dictionary might include its broader applications, such as “mass hysteria,” which some might suggest is pretty valuable concept these days. And what does our gnome suggest instead?

Better alternatives:

There’s only one problem: none of these “better alternatives” are the same as hysterical. They lack the same meaning. They fail to convey the same irrationality. Shit, they aren’t even close.

In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell saw the problem clearly.

Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Orwell argues that this decline isn’t inevitable, but that reversing it requires acknowledging it and confronting it. Now you know.

34 thoughts on “When The Dictionary Is Broke

  1. Hunting Guy

    Samuel Clemens.

    “Oh, that worthless, worthless book, that timid book, that shifty book, that uncertain book, that time-serving book, that exasperating book, that unspeakable book, the Unlimited Dictionary! that book with but one object in life: to get in more and shadings of the words than its competitors. With the result that nearly every time it gets done shading a good old useful word it means everything general and nothing in particular.”

    Reply
  2. Henry Berry

    You quote from someone: “Plus, have you ever heard a man being called hysterical … we’re guessing not.” I called president Bush the Younger’s reaction to 9/11 “hysterical.” I still cannot think of a more apt word. It may be of interest — I do not see Trump as hysterical except occasionally as this refers to funny with his nutty tweets or patently outlandish statements. By contrast, I often see anti-Trumper’s reactions to his tweets and behavior as hysterical, in both the emotionally wild sense and the funny sense of this word. I hope hysterical does not go the way of the dodo.

    Reply
    1. Jake

      I find the juxtaposition of naive credulity and willful ignorance characterized by most Trump supporters to be quite hysterical.

      Reply
  3. B. McLeod

    The domestic brawls between Noah Webster and his spouse were the stuff of legend. Into the wee hours, neighbors a quarter mile distant could hear Mrs. Webster shrieking, “Just what do you mean by THAT?”

    Reply
  4. Raccoon Strait

    Hysterical: the observed behavior of a legislative body when trying to ‘do something because something must be done’. See foam at the mouth.

    Language is fluid, they keep adding new words to the lexicon every year. That I refuse to use some of those is nobodies business but my own. The problem comes when others use them which causes a dictionary look-up, which is often dissatisfying as the intended use by the word user is different than what the dictionary tells us it has to be.

    Reply
  5. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    I went to Dictionary[dot]com to see the underpinnings to your post. I was surprised to learn that it also had a “word of the year.” This year the word is “existential.”

    I thought: “Existential” as in sites like these that pose an “existential” threat to the English language by, among other things, failing to recognize the ironic. And, by the way, I have never and will would never use the word “hysterical” when referring to a womxn. I prefer menopausal, but that’s just me.

    All the best.

    RGK

    Reply
      1. Guitardave

        I think they could just eliminate the def for disturbing, and put that face in its place.
        21 seconds is all i could do….now where did i leave my eye bleach?

        Reply
  6. delurking

    I stand in solidarity with my other minority brethren to demand you stop using words derived from our cultures, including Native American, Tibetan, Indian, Japanese, German, Native American, Roma, and Greek. And I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten; stop using those, too.

    That article is the progressive version of Poe’s law. It is amusing how many times it fails to follow its own rules. Don’t they know that “gypsy” itself is a slur? And, “…Tibetan stock”! Using a word meant for animals to describe the ancestry of people of color (I’m fainting right now)! And “North American Indian”, how dare they?

    Or just wrong:
    Binge is noted in Evans’ “Leicestershire Words, Phrases and Proverbs” (London, 1848) as a dialect verb for “To soak in water a wooden vessel, that would otherwise leak,” to make the wood swell. He adds that it was extended locally to excessive drinking (“soaking”). Sense extended c. World War I to include eating as well as drinking. That is a bit before psychologists were worried about it.

    Reply
    1. Jim Tyre

      I stand in solidarity with my other minority brethren to demand you stop using words

      And that’s where you should have stopped.

      Reply
    2. Charles

      It’s not a classic rock video, but it’s pretty good explanation as to why “Native American” may not be so woke.

      Reply
  7. Charles

    What do you say to comfort a dictionary writer when they get…um…checking list of acceptable words…intense?

    “There, their, they’re.”

    Reply
  8. kemn

    Wait, I’m not allowed to use “ninja”, or “guru” anymore?

    Well, damnit.

    (Am I allowed to use that, or is that insensitive to large structures holding back water?”

    Reply
  9. Fubar

    SHG asks:

    Is this the thoughtful product of a renowned lexicographer, historian of language with decades of perspective, or the ideas of an intern studying gender and grievance? Does it matter to you? It does to me, as dictionaries provide the mechanisms by which our shared language is given meaning.

    Whether dictionaries are prescriptive or descriptive is as old a question as dictionaries themselves.

    Ambrose Bierce, in his 1911 Devil’s Dictionary holds responsible both a human tendency to servility, and those lexicographers who take advantage of that tendency, to expand their authority from descriptive to prescriptive:

    LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods. For your lexicographer, having written his dictionary, comes to be considered “as one having authority,” whereas his function is only to make a record, not to give a law. The natural servility of the human understanding having invested him with judicial power, surrenders its right of reason and submits itself to a chronicle as if it were a statute. …

    Reply
  10. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Fantastic article! I’m hysterically binge-memorizing all of these and will ninja them into conversation at every opportunity.

    Reply
  11. andrews

    Fecal matter: using this term to describe what the _dictionary.com_ article writer is full of is offensive not only to E. Coli but also to the related “gut bacteria”.

    Better alternatives: shit, horse-shit, bullshit, manure.

    Reply

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