Dictionaries – like the English language – shouldn’t be made politically correct
An unusual argument is brewing among lexicographically-minded football fans in North London. The Oxford English Dictionary has for the first time included supporters and players of Tottenham Hotspur FC (who have a long history of being the objects of antisemitic abuse) in its definition of “yid”.
The club describes the definition as “misleading”, and some Jewish voices have insisted that the dictionary make clear that it is “a term of abuse”. (For what it’s worth, it does.) Is it helpful – even as the club is labouring to stamp out the word’s usage in football chants – for this term of offense to be given the apparent imprimatur of the Oxford English Dictionary?
Well, those prone to blush might want to look away now. For in any comprehensive dictionary, these days you will find sober definitions for “yid” – as well as “wop”, “kike”, “spic”, “beaner”, “coon”, “trannie”, “bender”, “poof”, “mong”, “n—–” and every other racial, sexual, ableist or gendered insult you can think of. Most of them will be, again soberly, suffixed by “derog” or “offensive” to indicate that they are used as terms of derogation or abuse. Just as “yid” is; though the dictionary notes that it is “also often” used “as a self-designation”.
That’s quite proper. It should, by now, barely need saying that the job of a dictionary is to record the language as it is used, rather than as we would wish it. It hasn’t always been that way. As the slang lexicographer Jonathon Green noted in Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, the inclusion of taboo words in “mainstream” word-lists has gone in and out of style. Noah Webster and James Murray (originator of the OED) both excluded a large number of rude words from their dictionaries; it was 1959 before any American dictionary included the f-word. But that battle has since been won: all reputable dictionaries include all disreputable words.