I have a mountain of sources to review and annotate for my reference class this semester, and I thought it would help to keep myself on task if I got to choose a particularly interesting, amusing, and/or valuable book each week to highlight on the FFLA. So here’s installment number one: The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage. (This was going to go up on Monday, but as you can see I’m already lagging behind on my self-assigned task!)

So, confession of a word nerd: I love dictionaries. Looking up an unfamiliar word is usually a welcome excuse to browse in my Shorter Oxford English two-volume dictionary. So one of the greatest perks of being a librarian — and a reference librarian in particular — is the pleasure of mucking about in dictionaries. So I knew I was going to have fun when one of the dictionaries on our review list for Reference was Rosalie Maggio’s 1991 Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A Guide to Nondiscriminatory Language.

This dictionary is actually a combination style guide and thesaurus along with a dictionary of some 5,000 word entries. Rather than being a straightforward “meaning and etymology of this word” dictionary, Bias-free attempt to provide cultural context for how the word has been used and why people object to it. In example:

LADYLIKE. Avoid. The word lady is generally unacceptable, and ‘ladylike conveys different meanings according to peoples’ perceptions of what a woman ought or ought not to do, say, think, wear, feel, look like . . . (159)

Or this one, even more strongly worded:

SLAVE GIRL. Never use. In addition to its unpleasant associations with slavery, this sexist, racist term perpetuates the false notion that women secretly enjoy being enslaved (252)

Maggio also includes definitions for terms related to discrimination (“sexism,” “homophobia”), demographic information in relation to professions and experiences — so that chosen pronouns can accurately reflect reality — and “key concept” entries which read more like short encyclopedia articles (the entry on “rape” for example, provides statistics and discusses cultural narratives surrounding rape). Her overall goal is to assist writers in editing their work for language and metaphor that is rooted in discrimination of one sort or another (sexism, racism, etc.).

It’s easy to make fun of the earnestness with which this guide was put together, as well as the author’s obvious value-judgements which are contained within each entry. Skeptic that I am, it is difficult to see how such injunctions as “never use” are applicable for any word, because words change their meaning according to context. While “slave girl” would be a highly inappropriate description of, say, a modern-day woman, if one is an historian (coughcough) writing about a child who was enslaved, “slave girl” may simply be a description of the individual based on age and class status. Similarly, because of the historically-specific context in which all printed dictionaries are compiled, usage and cultural meaning can quickly become out-dated. This is particularly true of politically-charged language such as is found in the Bias-Free dictionary. The use of the word “queer” in relation to sexual identity and action had a not-unrelated but significantly different cultural meaning in 1991, for example, than it does seventeen years later.

All of its shortcomings aside, the word-nerd within me enjoys reading the Bias-free in order to think about how words were perceived at this one particular moment in language and political history (during the late 1980s and early 1990s). And my feminist self applauds the intention behind the work, if not its somewhat clumsy execution.