Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Attitudes about Language: Banning the Dictionary

In Structures of English, we've been talking about attitudes people have toward language, especially toward particular words or accents in English.  Quite often, those attitudes are, unfortunately, on the negative side.  We tend to have feelings about words or constructions that should or should not be used in the English language and judge other people according to those feelings.  Yet, who has the right to dictate what words should or should not be used (or even belong) in the English language?

The English dictionary is a book set apart from other books in its long tradition of supplying definitions based on usage for words found in our language.  It is possibly the most useful reference book students, writers, readers, and language lovers can consult.  And yet... It was recently banned from a school for its inclusion of "colorful" language (read about it here).  Banning dictionaries takes the idea of banning books to a whole new level and makes me question just how attached American English speakers are to the idea of being able to monitor--and control--language use.

I would like to hear what other people think about this.  Should dictionaries be banned?  Further, should they be better censored for content if being published for use in elementary schools?  Or should dictionaries be allowed to grace bookshelves everywhere in their full glory?


  1. People can learn good and bad things from just about anywhere and teachers of younger age groups should be prepared to respond to language that kids can pick up from somewhere. It is important for some places to have age appropriate books but banning a dictionary pushes it too far. Editing out crucial gateways to learning like a dictionary is a sign of how bureaucratic things can get. It would be very complicated to figure out exactly what is age appropriate for a dictionary. I say leave it be and just be ready to respond to what happens.

  2. Nicely argued, Marlon. I would be curious, though, to see what kinds of words made it onto "age appropriate" lists. Would there be a different list for each grade? Or each "school" (like elementary school versus middle school)? And then would certain slang words be crossed off the list for people over certain ages? We could have some fun deciding what words are appropriate for what ages...

    The question your post now raises is how it is best to respond to questions about "colorful" words. Is it the teacher's place to deal with it? Or the parent's? Should there be a meeting with teacher and parent(s) involved every time a child uses a word or has a question about a word that may not be socially (or age-range) acceptable? I think one of the reasons people are so quick to ban the dictionary (among other books) is that we are uncomfortable trying to figure out how to respond to potentially embarrassing questions/word usages. We don't want to take the time and energy to figure out how to best navigate answering those questions or confrontations about words. That discomfort (or sheer laziness), then, leads to drastic measures: taking out the stimulus--in this case the dictionary--without asking what's best for the kids.

    I'm curious to see what other people think about this...

  3. I considered making an attempt at rationalizing this situation, and giving a long-winded (long-whatever the equivalent typing reference would be) argument, but then realized that it would be pointless, since anyone who thinks that banning the dictionary from a SCHOOL is a good idea probably couldn't comprehend any reasonable argument anyway. So, I guess I could sum up my reaction with something that will likely be in the dictionary soon enough (unless the definition gets it banned): wtf?

    Now, as to the cause of the problems at hand, I think it all stems from a general prudishness that has pervaded this country from it's Puritan roots. America is sexually repressed in terms of it allowing anything sexual to be expressed openly and without shame. Which is funny, since, like many cultures that held hypocritical views of sexuality (e.g. Victorian, Roman, Hellenistic, etc.), we spend a good bit of our time thinking about nothing else (which is likely a human trait in general), and spending more money that some countries' GDPs on sexual entertainment. So, anytime something surfaces that brings sexuality to attention the reaction is extreme from certain groups. I think we are seeing the death throes of this prudishness as the free expression of just about anything continues to evolve, through the internet especially. Language will immediately be affected of course, as mores change and taboo terms shift, if not semantically in carrying the negative aspects, then at least in their public usage as our acceptance of those things increases. Of course in that article they were banning the dictionary because of what was essentially a euphemism anyway. It's not like "blow job" is in that dictionary, is it?

    Sorry, I'm not even sure what I said makes any sense. This is all very ridiculous to me, and disturbs me.

  4. I guess it was "long-winded" after all. Haha

  5. I should have added: "...we are seeing the death throes of this prudishness... from the obvious extremes that they are going to limit the open expression of sexuality..." somewhere in there.

  6. Billy,

    I think we've been in those death throes a while, but we Americans like to hang on to what we were taught as kids (as to what's socially acceptable). America is on that verge of wanting to be more laissez faire but is held back because people still want to hold on to traditional values--even if they don't necessarily agree with them.

    I appreciate your "long-winded" comment--you provided the philosophical edge/social commentary to this debate.