The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Big Libel gig

Over the weekend, I went to a comedy gig in London, a charity event to support Libel Reform. To be honest, I got tickets because there were people on the bill I wanted to see - the likes of Dara O Briain, Marcus Brigstoke and the incredibly funny, Tim Minchin. And in terms of value-for-laughs it was fantastic - not only very funny, but really intelligent comedy too. In-between and mixed in with the comedy though, there was a lot of serious stuff about the problems with the UK libel laws, which I have to admit, I only had the haziest of awareness of. The main focus was on the problems scientists and science journalists face in criticizing "scientific" claims without fear of finding themselves caught up in a very long and incredibly expensive libel case. I hadn't been aware of the fact that Britain has some of the strictest libel laws in the world that encourage a huge amount of libel tourism; people from other countries coming to the UK to sue for libel because they wouldn't have a case in their own country.

It got me thinking about the restrictions we face in lexicography and EFL publishing generally. I don't know of any cases where dictionaries have been directly sued for libel, but there have been times they've come close. The most obvious was over the term McJob - a word that came into usage in the late 80s or early 90s to refer to "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector" (OED). The OED was the first dictionary to include it in 2001, followed by the American Merriam-Webster's dictionary in 2003 despite unsurprising objections from McDonalds. In 2007, the company even launched a campaign in the UK against the OED definition on the grounds that it didn't reflect a true picture of jobs in the modern service sector ... Aren't they missing the point?! If you found your job in a fast-food chain exciting and stimulating then you wouldn't call it a McJob any more than you'd refer to it as a dead-end job or burger flipping. The wonderful thing about language is that no one can tell us what a word means - not a dictionary nor a global corporation - words come to mean whatever people use them to mean. The job of a dictionary is not to make judgements or to bow to outside pressure, but simply to reflect usage.

Having said all that, as a lexicographer, I know that there is a degree of self-censorship in what we decide to include, or more importantly, avoid in the dictionary. We are, after all, trying to sell our product in markets around the world and we don't want to include anything that might offend our customers; be that individual students or the education ministries that might approve our books for use in schools. There are the obvious offensive and taboo words to be considered. Generally, you'll find these appearing in advanced learner's dictionaries but left out of lower level dictionaries with a younger target market.

Trickier sometimes is the content of example sentences for words with negative connotations. As lexicographers, we want to reflect language as it's actually used and we draw on real corpus data to find our examples. So what do you do when you look up a word like invade and are faced with screens of lines about US troops invading Iraq? The reality is, you take out the names and just talk about troops invading a country or you go way back in history and have an example of the Romans invading Britain (as in OALD). Are we sanitizing the language, giving a false picture or misleading our readers?

I recently read an academic article (Linguistic and cultural strategies in ELT dictionaries) which suggested that ELT dictionaries should include more real cultural references to help bring the language alive for students and help them to relate it to their own experiences of global and local culture. It's a very interesting idea, but I do wonder what obstacles such a project might run up against in terms of objections or even libel suits from those real people, companies or organizations they chose to include.

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