The point of dictionaries is to describe how language is used, not to police it | Lynne Murphy

Tottenham Hotspur’s protests about the OED’s definition of the Y-word may be understandable, but are misplaced

Protests against dictionaries are nothing new. In the 1960s, distaste for the treatment of “non-standard” vocabulary such as “ain’t” in Merriam-Webster’s Third International Dictionary was so vociferous that a hostile takeover of the company was attempted, and after that failed a competitor dictionary was founded. The price of used copies of the 1934 Second International Dictionary skyrocketed as customers rejected the dictionary’s approach to controversial usages.

These days dictionary protests come and go with less drastic effects but greater regularity. Critiquing dictionary definitions gives social and political campaigns focus and attention – as in a 2019 campaign by the animal-rights organisation Peta calling on to revise its definition of “animal”. Publishers’ PR departments can also catalyse controversy. The most innovative and zeitgeisty dictionary additions are highlighted in quarterly press releases about dictionary revisions, perhaps in hope of viral attention. It works. When the Collins Dictionary added plant-based foods, including “veganaise”, last year, the Times asked if readers thought such words “desecrat[e] the way we speak”.

Another kind of case has emerged in recent days. Tottenham Hotspur has shown the yellow card to the Oxford English Dictionary for its new definitions of the words “yid” and “yiddo”. While the dictionary records both words as usually offensive terms for Jewish people, it now also describes them as nicknames for Spurs supporters, noting that the fan-directed usage is “originally and frequently derogatory and offensive, though also often as a self-designation”. The club has issued a statement saying that it has “never accommodated” use of the “Y-word”, and considers the definition “misleading”.

The Y-word is clearly different from “ain’t”, and “veganaise”, of course. As a word that in its derogatory sense represents a form of hate speech, it causes grave offence. Words for different categories of people always present complex challenges for dictionaries, especially when the people in those categories discriminate against each other. “Yid” started out as a self-referential word for Jewish people in Yiddish, a heritage language for many European Jews (still the first language of some Haredi Jews). Borrowed into the English of non-Jews, it took on a derogatory flavour in the 1930s. Its later application to Spurs fans by supporters of opposing clubs was a hostile act arising from a culture of antisemitism. But – as has happened for other terms in recent decades – the slur has been reclaimed by some of its former victims. As Martin Cloake and Alan Fisher wrote in their history of the club: “Spurs supporters … became Yids in adversity through a complex and contested process of identity formation. Forced to respond to pejorative, abusive taunts from rival supporters, many in the crowd embraced the term in order to render the abuse impotent.” In a survey of Spurs supporters last year, 33% claimed to use Yid regularly in football contexts, but “almost half” of those surveyed felt that the word should be used less or not at all. Among Jewish Spurs fans, 16% would like the “Y-word” to be chanted less and 26% not at all. However, 58% did not object to its use, giving a picture of a very complicated word.

Every time people say that a word or meaning “doesn’t belong” in a dictionary, lexicographers sigh a little. Dictionary writers share a vocation to record a particular language as it is used rather than how anyone, whether Peta or Spurs, would like it to be used. This is especially true of the OED, which is designed as a tool for the historical study of the language, recording evidence of changes in English words and meanings over the past thousand years. It’s worth noting that at this point Oxford Dictionaries has included the “Spurs supporter” definition of the Y-words only in the OED, a subscription-based service intended for those engaged in historical and linguistic research. It does not appear in its web-searchable online products, which are designed for everyday use by people learning or using the language.

There are good reasons for wanting a warts-and-all record of the language. Though offensive words may be pushed out of use, they will survive in many of the places where they have been printed, including in journalism, fiction, correspondence and diaries. Future readers will be as puzzled by the slang of our time as we might be by the mention of yellow boys (gold coins) in Dickens, and dictionaries should be there to help. There’s also good reason for recording that Y-words are used by different people to derogate and to celebrate, regardless of what is authorised by Tottenham Hotspur. If dictionaries record the usage of only the authorities, the voices of the people are lost. Should “yid” be alleged as a weapon in a hate-speech crime, it will be important to have a record of, and to appreciate, the complexity of its history.

That doesn’t mean that the protests are unwarranted or unwelcome. Despite any temptation to sigh and point to the academic motivations for recording such words, protests are productive for the improvement of dictionaries. They are particularly welcome where they concern the dignity of those to whom the words refer. This is nothing new. In 1924, the Jewish Chronicle took issue with Oxford Dictionaries’ inclusion of a derogatory use of the word Jew to mean “an unscrupulous usurer”, prompting the dictionary to label the usage as “opprobrious” and to provide explanatory notes about the history of the word’s usage, as well as its meanings. Last year, the #RedefineBlack campaign led to reorganise its entry for “black”. Lexicographers, while well intentioned, often come from groups that suffer less from the slinging of slurs. Whether or not the OED’s definition of Y-words will ever please Spurs, at least a conversation is happening about what dictionaries could do better.

• Lynne Murphy is professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex and author of The Prodigal Tongue: the Love–Hate Relationship between British and American English

• This article was amended on 19 and 25 February 2020. An earlier version made reference to “plant-free” foods being added to Collins Dictionary. This should have said “plant-based”. It also said that Yiddish was “still the first language of Haredi Jews”; this has been amended to “some Haredi Jews”.


Lynne Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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