Stephen Turton is an English DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. His thesis focusses on the history of queer representation in English lexicography. In this blog post, he considers social media reactions to the addition of genderqueer to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in 2016.
dictionaries, queer, gender, legitimacy, ignorance
There is an enduring folk belief that a word is only ‘real’ if it is included in a dictionary. In this belief, as Lynda Mugglestone (2016: 553) observes, ‘The dictionary-maker is constructed as gate-keeper, momentarily opening up the “bastion” to new members’. I would argue that dictionaries are not only viewed as linguistic gatekeepers, but social ones. When a dictionary includes a word, it may be perceived as not only validating that word’s place in the language, but also valorising the place in society of whatever entity that word denotes. This is especially apparent in dictionaries’ treatment of queer identity labels.
In April 2016, Merriam-Webster added genderqueer to the subscription-only version of its online dictionary, and defined it as ‘of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female’. The inclusion of genderqueer (along with cisgender) was applauded by the Human Rights Campaign, which observed that ‘While plenty of definitions of these words are available online, Merriam-Webster’s status as a linguistic authority lends legitimacy to these terms’. Nevertheless, Merriam-Webster shied away from this appointment to the position of gatekeeper. In an interview with The Atlantic which appeared under the provocative title ‘Does Adding “Genderqueer” to the Dictionary Make It “Real”?’, Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, gave a noncommittal response: ‘The dictionary is not a political document […] we’re not defining what a person is […] We’re describing the word and how it’s used in the language.’ Yet can a dictionary truly be an apolitical document? Rosamund Moon (2014: 103) argues that when it comes to ‘ideologically loaded words’—such as those concerning gender and sexuality—‘the very process of composing entries for such words is essentially an ideological act’.
Certainly, some people saw the addition of genderqueer to the dictionary as an ideological affront. On 25 April 2016, soon after announcing that genderqueer had been added to its dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account posted a screenshot of the new entry below a rather tart caption: ‘People keep 1) saying they don’t know what “genderqueer” means then 2) asking why we added it to the dictionary’. The tweet struck a chord with the dictionary’s followers: as of 14 January 2018, it has been liked 25,210 times and retweeted 22,799 times. Yet the tweet seemingly presents a paradox. Why would someone plead ignorance of the meaning of a word, and then express puzzlement at its inclusion in a dictionary? This is inexplicable if the dictionary is regarded to be a neutral record of a language, in line with the descriptivist aims of the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster and other dictionary houses, who simply seek to record the English language as it is commonly used, not to dictate how they think it ought to be used (Kori Stamper 2017: 35). But the paradox becomes understandable if one considers that, for some people, the dictionary is perceived to be a prescriptive tool: a linguistic and cultural authority capable of ‘lending legitimacy’ to certain words. And not everybody felt that genderqueer ought to be legitimized.
The implication of Merriam-Webster’s tweet is that for some dictionary users, ignorance of genderqueer was wilful: they saw the inclusion of the word in a mainstream dictionary as a challenge to this ignorance, an undesirable act of validation. This attitude is evident in some of the replies that Merriam-Webster’s tweet received:
- ‘no one knows what it is because it isn’t a thing’ (Evan Tate)
- ‘the dictionary is supposed to be for real words, not made up bullshit for teenagers’ (Donna J. Trump)
- ‘Speaking of fantasy words, when will you be adding elvish words?’ (Leaf)
- ‘Because it’s a faggy made-up word by mentally ill people, @MerriamWebster. Do you have various mumbled grunts in the dictionary too?’ (FACLC)
- ‘It’s a word that came exclusively from Tumblr with a billion other make-believe genders. It’s not worthy of the dictionary.’ (Rae’s Soapbox)
In sum, genderqueer is ‘not worthy of the dictionary’, whose mandate is to record only ‘real words’, not ‘fantasy’ or ‘made-up’ words. The tweets ignore the fact that all words are at some point ‘made up’, and all linguistic change is in this sense artificial. Implicit in the tweets’ arguments is the common-sense belief that some changes are a ‘natural’ part of the evolution of a language, while other changes are forced upon the language for ideological reasons. But as Deborah Cameron (1995: 160) observes, ‘It is always worth asking why, and from whose point of view, one way of using language seems obvious, natural and neutral, while another seems ludicrous, loaded and perverse’.
The tweets further question the very intelligibility of genderqueer by equating it with an exotic language (‘elvish’) and non-linguistic vocalizations (‘mumbled grunts’)—despite the fact that genderqueer is a relatively transparent compound of two well-established English words. Of course, it would strain credulity to take at face value these users’ assertions that genderqueer is so utterly incomprehensible to them. Rather, these tweets are examples of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990: 5) calls the ‘orchestration of ignorance’. Sedgwick reminds us of ‘the degree to which the power of our enemies over us is implicated, not in their command of knowledge, but precisely in their ignorance’ (p. 7). In the case of genderqueer, tweeters are not really objecting to the word genderqueer itself so much as what it signifies: the group of people who use the word to self-identify beyond the bounds of normative gender, and who in so doing challenge that normativity. Thus, wilful ignorance becomes a weapon deployed against this group to further silence and marginalize it. The tweeters do not want to understand what genderqueer means, for to accept that it has meaning is to accept the legitimacy of the word genderqueer in the language, and from there it is (perhaps) a small step to accepting the legitimacy of genderqueer people in society. The admission of the word into a dictionary challenges this ignorance: if a lexicographer can write a definition of a word, then it clearly must have an explicable meaning.
Despite all objections, the entry for genderqueer remains on Merriam-Webster.com, and is now also available in the free version of the dictionary. Of course, even if no dictionary included genderqueer, that would not stop the word from being real and meaningful to the speakers who use it. Merriam-Webster may as well have responded to its critics by paraphrasing a liberationist slogan from the 1990s: ‘genderqueer is here—get used to it’.
Donna J. Trump. [VenomOfTheEast]. (2016, May 2). @MerriamWebster the dictionary is supposed to be for real words, not made up bullshit for teenagers. Retrieved on 13 March 2017; since deleted.
Evan Tate. [evantate_]. (2016, May 1). @MerriamWebster @femfreq no one knows what it is because it isn’t a thing. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/evantate_/status/ 726873987549011968 on 14 January 2018.
FACLC. [FACLC]. (2016, April 27). Because it’s a faggy made-up word by mentally ill people, @MerriamWebster. Do you have various mumbled grunts in the dictionary too? Retrieved from https://twitter.com/FACLC/status/725508437635813376 on 13 March 2017.
Leaf. [LeafGreenTweets]. (2016, April 25). @MerriamWebster Speaking of fantasy words, when will you be adding elvish words? Retrieved from https://twitter.com/LeafGreenTweets/status/724660552287588353 on 14 January 2018.
Rae’s Soapbox. [raes_soapbox]. (2017, February 23). @MerriamWebster It’s a word that came exclusively from Tumblr with a billion other make-believe genders. It’s not worthy of the dictionary. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/raes_soapbox/status/835002308442259457 on 13 March 2017.
Merriam-Webster. [MerriamWebster]. (2016, April 25). People keep 1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means then 2) asking why we added it to the dictionary. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/MerriamWebster/status/724645568014868480 on 14 January 2018.
Merriam-Webster. [MerriamWebster]. (2016, April 25). Nomophobia: fear of being without access to a working cell phone http://ow.ly/4n2K4D. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/MerriamWebster/status/724524665788616705 on 14 January 2018.
Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London and New York: Routledge.
‘Cisgender’ and ‘Genderqueer’ Added to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. (2016, April 21). Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.org/blog/cisgender-and-genderqueer-added-to-merriam-webst... on 13 January 2018.
Green, E. (2016, April 25). Does Adding ‘Genderqueer’ to the Dictionary Make It ‘Real’? Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/04/ genderqueer-cisgender-transphobia-merriam-webster/479406/ on 13 January 2018.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/ on 14 January 2018.
Moon, R. (2014). Meanings, Ideologies, and Learners’ Dictionaries. In A. Abel, C. Vettori, and N. Ralli (Eds.), Proceedings of the XVI EURALEX International Congress: The User in Focus, 15–19 July 2014 (pp. 85–105). Bolzano/Bozen: Institute for Specialised Communication and Multilingualism.
Mugglestone, L. (2016). Description and Prescription in Dictionaries. In P. Durkin (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Lexicography (pp. 546–560). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Stamper, K. (2017). Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon Books.
Social media: phylologie.wordpress.com
Author: Stephen Turton