Friday, 19 October 2012

Changing the definition of

a word is usually something which happens gradually but claims that "misogyny" has done this are almost certainly exaggerated.
There has been some discussion about this word and the meaning of it lately, Our Prime Minister accused our Opposition Leader of misogyny. She has not repeated the claim outside parliament and neither have any members of her government. They are unlikely to do so because it would lay them open to being sued for slander. The accusation is untrue even if they claim to mean it in the "expanded" form. What puzzled me, my father and a great many other people was the idea that this word had gained an "expanded form".
Sue Butler, the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, claims (this from the ABC site) "that the political furor (sic) revealed to her fellow editors that their dictionary's definition was decades out of date" and then went on to say "since the 1980's "misogyny" has come to be used as a synonym for sexism - a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of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'.
I think she is, quite simply, wrong. The definition is not decades out of date. It is not a synonym for "sexism".  The word has undoubtedly been misused and abused on occasions but the Prime Minister would have been well aware of what the word meant. She would have chosen it quite deliberately. She would have had other words in her vocabulary if she wanted to talk about "sexist" behaviour.
The idea that the word is a synonym for "sexist" also suggests that "sexism" only refers to inappropriate male behaviour towards women and that the reverse cannot occur. Of course it can occur so the definition is at best - I will try to be polite here - "awkward" and "inappropriate". I doubt "misandry" will be redefined in the same way although it would seem that it should be.
The Macquarie Dictionary is supposed to be the last word on the meanings of words in Australian English. We own a copy of the most recent edition but it is a dictionary which frequently irritates me and my father. I also own a two volume "shorter" Oxford - my main reference source - and a number of other dictionaries.
Language changes and grows, of course it does. New words come into being in order to describe new things and new ideas. In this instance however I doubt that the definition of a word is "decades out of date". I think it is much more likely that it is an attempt to give a word a meaning for a political purpose - and that is not the function of any lexicographer.


jeanfromcornwall said...

Which character of Lewis Carroll's wa it that said "the word means what I choose it to mean"?

Anonymous said...

Humpty-Dumpty? Bob C-S