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  • On Dictionary Day, take a banned word to lunch

    Noah Webster
    Noah Webster

    October 16, Noah Webster's birthday, is Dictionary Day, a day to celebrate the dictionaries wherein are stored the many and varied words of our language, to revel in their sounds and subtle meanings, to look back at words we may have lost, or forward to those yet to be invented. But one British school has decided to honor Dictionary Day by banning a batch of words commonly used by its students.

    Harris Academy Upper Norwood, a London charter school, announced that its students will no longer be allowed to say coz, aint [sic], like, bare, extra, innit, you woz, and we woz. Plus, they can’t start sentences with basically or end them with yeah. The reason? According to school authorities, students who say these sorts of words won’t get good jobs. For the same reason, a school in Sheffield banned slang and text talk last year. Although some commenters took to the twittersphere to accuse Upper Norwood authorities of racism and classism, not to mention a certain amount of fuckwittage, a British adult slang term, others, including a local Labour MP, praised the school’s action:

    Using slang is fine in some situations, but the ability to also speak good English is absolutely crucial in any workplace, and it is something that every school should be teaching its students. [Note that this MP split an infinitive, but hey, he's already got a good job.]

    A children’s book illustrator also voiced support for the ban:

    Everyone is acting as if it's like when Victorian kids were caned for speaking Welsh. Language could secure them a better future. [In supporting "good English," whatever that is, the illustrator does use singular everyone with plural they, along with a potentially questionable like, but a picture's worth a thousand words, so....]

    Although earlier educational philosophy assured us that whipping students, chaining them to desks or radiators, or rapping their knuckles, were effective ways to get them to switch from Welsh, Irish, Scots, German, Spanish, or a host of Native American languages, to English, corporal punishment is no longer considered an appropriate way to secure linguistic compliance. In addition, post-Orwell, it’s not clear that banning words will secure anyone a better future.

    Harris Academy sign lists banned student words 

    A twittersphere photo of Harris Academy’s list of banned words. For the uninitiated, bare means ‘very, a lot of,’ and extra means ‘stupid, dumb.’

    These modern word bans are not isolated incidents, nor are they confined to Britain. Despite a strong free speech tradition in the United States, in recent years a number of American schools have banned the use of languages other than English. The New York City Council considered a measure to ban words like bitch and ho. Every New Year one American college proudly announces its latest list of banned words. Apparently Apple considered banning certain dirty words on its iPhone. And one community banned an entire dictionary for having too much sex.

    Noah Webster might have liked that last attack on words, even though it was a Merriam Webster dictionary that was banned. That’s because Webster disapproved of dirty words. Not only did he not include them in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), he also felt the need to take them out of the Bible, which he retranslated to remove words like stinkwomb, belly, whore, stones (‘testacles’), and piss. In the preface to his version of the Bible (1833), Webster explains,

    Many words and phrases are so offensive, especially to females, as to create a reluctance in young persons to attend Bible classes and schools, in which they are required to read passages which cannot be repeated without a blush; and containing words which, on other occasions, a child could not utter without rebuke.

     Noah Webster, lexicographer and prude

    Noah Webster, lexicographer and prude, had eight children.

    The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary banned dirty words like fuck as well, as did the Century Dictionary, which skips from fucivorous to fucoid, two words the editors felt were more appropriate to define. The ban didn’t stick, and now the OED has a detailed entry for fuck, and it even traces fuckwitwhich it labels Australian in origin, back to 1969. Modern dictionaries don’t ban words. Instead, they try to include as many as they can.

    The Century Dictionary (1889) skips from fucivorous to fucoid, two words the editors found more appropriate to define than fuck

    The Century Dictionary (1889) skips from fucivorous to fucoid.

    Neverthess, bans on words, phrases, even entire languages, form a common feature of the human linguistic landscape, part of the natural give and take as styles of discourse change, and as groups struggle to assert their rights or try to take away rights from others. These bans may be distasteful (caning Welsh speakers is definitely not on), and they are often ineffective.

    Certainly the Upper Norwood ban on student slang won’t work, because today’s teens didn’t invent ain’t, coz, innit? like, or sentence-final yeah, which are found broadly in informal British English (the OED traces ain’t to the 17th century, and innit back to 1959). And even if today’s teens did invent bare, ‘a lot of,’ and extra, ‘stupid,’ placing a sign outside the school forbidding certain kinds of speech isn’t going stop it, even if the ban does attract the attention of the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post UKMore to the point, students are already aware that different social situations require different words, different degrees of formality. They demonstrate that awareness daily by creating a language that separates them from adults, and especially from adult school authorities.

    And students also know something that the word-banners seem not to know:

    • by the time a complainer calls for banning a word, it’s already too ingrained in the language to eradicate,
    • and if you wait long enough, you will hear the complainers using the very bits of language that they claim they want to ban.

    Basically, banning words goes against today’s more-inclusive spirit of dictionary making, so on this Dictionary Day, let’s celebrate banned words by using them liberally, yeah, or at least taking one to lunch. 

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