The Macquarie Dictionary's Susan Butler denies a conspiracy and admits amusement over the politicians' duelling definitions for "misogyny".
Who would have thought that the entry on misogyny would have pulled Macquarie Dictionary into such a media storm? The word entered the English language in the 1600s as a gloss of the Greek word misogynia [misein to hate + gynē woman] and pottered along with infrequent use until the 1890s, when it was taken up in psychology and given a pair in misandry [hatred of men].
Somewhere in the 1900s, but increasingly in the feminist discourse of the latter part of the 20th century, it became a synonym for sexism, both words referring to a general prejudice against women as opposed to an individual pathological mental state. The first meaning of the word, hatred of women, still stands as a definition in the Macquarie, but it seems some people think this meaning is being replaced by the one relating to prejudice.
The whole discussion kicked off with a phone call to the dictionary from a journalist at the Australian Financial Review who, prompted by the debate about the meaning of misogyny following Julia Gillard’s speech in parliament, rang to ask the editors of the dictionary what we thought.
The notion of a conspiracy here – that the dictionary was in cahoots with the PM to change the meaning of the word – was highly amusing. (It would be fun to be a lexicographe grise but the probability that I'd find such a role in politics is not high. Back to my drudgery.)
Also amusing was watching the virtuous pedants-in-politics, clutching their Oxford Concise dictionaries of about 30 years ago and maintaining that the Oxford would never do such a thing. Just to rub salt into the wound, they scoffed that the Macquarie was the sort of dictionary that would allow decimate to mean "annihilate".
Of course, the most recent and comprehensive edition of the Oxford allows both these changes in meaning. The editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, John Simpson, even enjoyed the opportunity to have a dig at Macquarie for being so behind the times – he expanded the meaning of misogyny in 2002.
Politicians adopt the current language conventions of the community, but their problem is that they are highly visible – or audible. They are not the only people to use fulsome to mean "full" so that fulsome praise is no longer "overblown and insincere praise" but rather "complete and wholehearted praise". I doubt that John Howard was the first person to use fulsome in this way, as in his "fulsome support of reconciliation" in 1997, but he (or his speechwriter) must have been an early adopter.
Other common sources of irritation are hone in rather than home in, the use of literally as a marker of emphasis robbed of all meaning, infamous to meaning famous, and the hoi polloi as the upper class rather than the masses.
Perhaps, as with disinterested and uninterested, the dictionary will have to accept the current meaning rather than fight for a lost cause, and include a usage note on the transition. Like everyone else, sometimes I might dislike the change, but as editor of the dictionary my job is to record it.
Subtle changes in the use of a word can fly under the radar until there is some kind of discourse, public or otherwise, which brings them to the attention of the dictionary editors. Like everyone else, we watch TV, listen to the radio and read the newspaper. I even read all the advertising material stuffed into the letterbox because it is a good guide to fashions in food and clothing and appliances.
When a word is brought to our attention, we are lucky these days to be able to draw on the immense resources of the internet such as newsfeeds, blogs, videos, etc, to research the use of the word over time, in different areas of the world, and in different kinds of texts.
We can also check other dictionaries, to see if the same conclusions have been reached by our fellow lexicographers. The processes by which we arrive at the decision that a word should go in the dictionary are always the same, regardless of the starting point.
The next upload of new words and meanings for the online dictionary happens at the beginning of 2013. Until the end of this year this material will go through a number of proof cycles, so the entries for misogyny and misandry are, at this moment, still not set in concrete. But it seems clear that they will each have two definitions covering hatred and prejudice, and possibly a usage note to acknowledge their moment in Australian politics, when the dictionary's standard note along the lines of "some people will object to this change" generated particular heat.
Susan Butler is editor and publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary
Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox