The Dictionary Story

(I’m still procrastinating on “The three stories that made me stop reading Asimov’s” but I am slowly working on it.)

Back in the late ’80’s when I was an Intern at RCA Missile and Surface Radar, I worked with a couple of rather old engineers. One thing I learned was that really old engineers spent a lot more time getting their retirement accounts in order than actually engineering…. But for a while I was working in the main building rather than the trailers. And they had an amazing reference library there that I still sometimes wish I had access to. Browsing original bound issues of the Bell System Technical Journal was kinda cool, at least to a 19 year old me still in the Electrical/Computer Engineering track. (These days they can be found online). But they also had some rather old reference books in the hands of the engineers as well, for desk reference, even if they didn’t really need them.

To wit: Both of these guys had copies of the Webster’s New World Dictionary. Physically, these dictionaries were identical, blue cloth-covered hardbacks with the logo embossed and painted into the front cover. The difference was one was a 1932 edition, and the other was published in 1948. One slow day I had a chance to amuse myself by comparing various entries in the two. (We had no smartphones in those days to occupy our every idle moment, nor even real internet connectivity. It would be another five years before I got my first account).

I looked up “Yen” in the 1932 edition. It said, “The Japanese currency, valued at about 50 cents.” 1948 said, “The Japanese currency, valued at 360 to the dollar.” I know these days it more or less runs about 100 to the dollar. But it was an interesting historical lesson. I’d later found out that the 360 value was an artifact of the Occupation – MacArthur was told that the word for money also meant round (Hence the Japanese hand gesture for money that looks a lot like the OK sign, as opposed to the western gesture of rubbing your thumb and forefingers like you were sliding a couple of bills against each other.) so round = 360 degrees = 360 yen to the dollar, and that rate was fixed until we left.

I never would have learned that without having different hard-copy editions of the same dictionary to compare. Those books were snapshots in time.

Of course, being a callow youth, I also tried looking up naughty words. And that was a real revelation. When I looked up “Masturbation”, the 1948 edition gave a straightforward and fairly clinical definition. However, the 1932 definition is what really shocked me. One expects the dictionary to be unflinchingly honest and factual and tell you exactly what a word means without editorializing, but this was not so. The 1932 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defined “Masturbation” with just two words: “Self Pollution.”

What the hell did that even mean? Apparently that was enough to satisfy the editors in 1932. They included the word because it was a real word, but gave it a definition right out of an evangelical tent revival. The message being “We know you know what this really means, because you’re looking it up, but this is what we think of it, and you should be ashamed.” This is the shocked face of a teenaged me learning that even the editors of dictionaries would allow bias to creep into their work. (Or perhaps creep is the wrong word, I should consult a dictionary…).

The reason this story came back to me as something to write about is because of some recent events. You see, even though eventually the editors of Webster’s, at least for a time, decided that brave factuality was what people needed in reference books instead of proselytizing, the pendulum swings. But when you’re talking about physical books, publishing a revision does not make the older editions cease to exist. People can compare them, and that keeps you honest. Not so much today, where digital references can be revised, editorialized, and even vandalized on a continuous basis, and often there is no record of what came before. In an ideal world, online references like Wikipedia would only be revised by enlightened individuals who want to openly contribute their knowledge of a subject to the world, on a purely factual basis. Okay, stop laughing. We have seen what happens when political factions organize to control the “Narrative” and seize the institutions like Academia, the Media, and yes, even the Dictionary into the service of their side. And it doesn’t help when the other side still believes that factual information will win out simply because it is based in the real world, and thus don’t want to take on the organized opposition, they’d rather just be left alone, and thus they also remain unorganized.

Brandolini’s Law also becomes a factor:

You can exhaust yourself trying to refute the garbage that your opposition throws at the wall like a toddler throws spaghetti, waiting to see what sticks. Eventually you retire from the field and the opposition goes wild making all the bullshit stick. Just read the Wikipedia Entries on Sad Puppies or GamerGate or even the Trump administration if you want to see what one-sided editorialization looks like instead of the purported Neutral Point of View that is supposed to be the hallmark.

“But wait, Dr. Mauser,” you might say (or probably not), “You started with the Dictionary, The frigging Dictionary man, why are you talking about Wikipedia? Even Wikipedia says that it shouldn’t be treated like an original source.”

Why? Because what happens when something that is supposed to be as rock solid and reliable as the Dictionary turns into a corrupted political propaganda engine like Wikipedia? Astute watchers are seeing that with Webster’s Online Dictionary. It’s one thing for a reference to try to remain on top of the current vernacular, and take advantage of the immediacy of a continuously updatable database to follow the trends. It’s quite another when you debase that reputation for reliability and factuality to try to lead the narrative by redefining terms in favor of a particular political agenda.

One example is the word Vaccine. Since Covid-19 started, people have watched the definition of “Vaccine” go through at least three revisions that softened the definition from providing immunity to “Helping reduce the severity of an infection.” (paraphrased). Similarly, the definition of “Anti-Vaxxer” has been expanded from originally being a person opposed to the use of vaccines, to also include anyone who is opposed to laws/regulations mandating them (One of the revisions cataloged noted that the mandate was not actually a law, so Webster’s scratched Law and substituted Regulation).

What’s worse is that unlike Wikipedia, which at least includes a revision history, every change Webster’s makes throws the previous definition down the Memory Hole. There is no 1932 edition to compare it to to see where the bias was or crept in. There isn’t even a 1984 edition. If it weren’t for people keeping an eye out for these things, you might not even notice as the bias became woven throughout the entire database. And the edits aren’t signed, so we don’t know who is under the Scooby-Doo mask. (“See, it was old man Webster who was really editing all the dictionaries.” “And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”) I won’t be too surprised when it turns out that posting “Outdated” screenshots from Webster’s is grounds for a “Misinformation” ban on Twitter and Facebook.

The thing is, if you’re the custodian of what is meant to be a reference, you are obligated to maintain a purely factual and politically neutral point of view. Objectivity is the watchword. Those Bell System Technical Journals would have been useless as an engineering reference if all the articles were just people slagging other people’s ideas because they rubbed each other the wrong way, and documenting how they wished circuits worked instead of conducting empirical tests. The Dictionary and the Encyclopedia must hold themselves to the same standard. The gift of the move to electronic media enables them to avoid being out of date, but it is a foundational error to use that revisability as a political bludgeon. Of course, some of the blame lands on us, for expecting our institutions to remain true to themselves simply because of what they are, when what they are has been rendered infinitely mutable. However what the other side fails to realize is that as they trade on the institutions’ reputation for being true and factual to clothe their opinions with the imprimatur of truth, the more they debase and diminish the reputation of those institutions, leaving nothing that people can rely on for honesty.

After all, if you can’t trust the Dictionary, who can you trust?