Dictionary Ethics: Thanks, Cambridge, But I’ll Ask Billy Joel Next Time…

I was going to make this an Ethics Quiz, but decided that the verdict was pretty clear.

Conservative media and blogs have been fulminating over the Cambridge Dictionary’s decision to add a definition of woman—perhaps to help out Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, whose answer at her conformation hearing that she wasn’t a “biologist” and thus couldn’t define “woman” will haunt her forever (good!)—that jibes with woke fantasies. Now, along with the standard definition of woman as “An adult female human being,” we are stuck with (at least if we consult the Cambridge Dictionary, which I don’t) “An adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”

At a basic level, the publication is getting criticism it doesn’t deserve. Dictionaries follow language use trends, they don’t lead them. My language maven friends often complain about the loss of useful distinctions in the English language when they become erased by such frequent sloppy use that even dictionaries endorse the misuse. But in language, unlike in ethics, “everybody does it” is usually decisive. I find the distinction between “that” and “which” useful, but many dictionaries have given up and define the words as interchangeable. Nonetheless, I will continue to honor the distinction, just as I will not use the Cambridge alternate definition of “woman. I will acknowledge that many people, perhaps not enough to justify the definition but apparently enough for this one dictionary, do use the new meaning—which to me means “If you say you’re a duck and quack like a duck, that’s literally enough to make you a duck.”

Sorry, I don’t believe in magic. The Cambridge Dictionary people aren’t necessarily saying they do either, though. Their new definition simply means some committee has concluded that enough people are using “woman” this way that attention must be paid. We all know, of course, that…

  • The definition was almost certainly at least partially a public relations stunt, since this dictionary is well behind Webster’s and Oxford in public recognition, and they saw an opportunity to get the jump on them and make a killing in the trans market…
  • Activists will use the dictionary as authority for their position, which will constitute a tautology: Cambridge added the definition because the activists use the word that way, and activist will say that ‘the dictionary” defines woman that way, so they must be right.

My major ethical problem with the definition is that it must be the most weaselly and vague definition of any word I’ve ever seen in print. What does “identifies” mean? Always? Legally? Day to day? Minute to minute? What does “lives as female” mean? Is someone who uses a urinal and peruses girlie magazines while singing “Old Man River” in a booming bass at karaoke parties “living as a female”?

May have been said to have”? Seriously? “Said to have” by whom? “May have? What if they haven’t? I don’t even know what I’m arguing about, the definition is so bad. Why would anyone consult language experts who can’t write better than that?

Now I remember why I don’t use the Cambridge Dictionary…

4 thoughts on “Dictionary Ethics: Thanks, Cambridge, But I’ll Ask Billy Joel Next Time…

  1. This isn’t as egregious, in my opinion, as when about a decade ago the word “literally” came to mean its exact opposite – “figuratively.”

    Or… maybe this has some relation to that. An individual who is a literal man may be considered a figurative woman by the dictionary definition and current woke parlance. No problem with opposites here when basic definitions are broken!

  2. Billy Joel. What a prodigious and prolific talent. Interesting he’s stopped composing and writing lyrics for the last twenty or more years.

  3. “An adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”

    That entire definition is not a definition by any stretch of the imagine. It is word salad, it is internally incoherent and imprecise. It is clumsy and contradictory. The dictionary is no longer defining words.


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