Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Does Your Thesaurus Offend You Too?

From the AP:
An online thesaurus struck a listing Monday for the word "Arab" after Arab-American groups complained the entry listed derogatory synonyms.

The entry, which appeared on thesaurus.com, listed the word as a noun meaning "beggar," and gave 16 pejorative synonyms including "homeless person" and "welfare bum."

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee contacted the synonym book's online publisher Friday to complain about the entry; the American Arab Forum also criticized the listing on Monday...

Several hours after Roget's Thesaurus was called by The Associated Press, all entries for "Arab" had been pulled from the site.

Barbara Ann Kipfer, editor of the third edition of Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, said the entry had likely been on the site for years, but never made it into printed versions of the thesaurus.

"We're simply going to take it out," she said on Monday. "The last thing you want with a thesaurus is to offend anyone."
No Barbara, the last thing you want in a Thesaurus is to be wrong.
Kipfer said an 18th-century term "street arab" had appeared in other thesauruses, referring to a homeless child who has been abandoned and roams through the streets.

What is actually going on here is a fairly comprehensive cross-referencing of the English language. The site probably looked something like this one (adapted from Roget's) which links "Arab" to its meaning as "traveler" and then provides synonyms:

Synonyms within Context

Traveler - Tourist, excursionist, explorer, adventurer, mountaineer, hiker, backpacker, Alpine Club; peregrinator, wanderer, rover, straggler, rambler; bird of passage; gadabout, gadling; vagrant, scatterling, landloper, waifs and estrays, wastrel, foundling; loafer; tramp, tramper; vagabond, nomad, Bohemian, gypsy, Arab, Wandering Jew, Hadji, pilgrim, palmer; peripatetic; somnambulist, emigrant, fugitive, refugee; beach comber, booly; globegirdler, globetrotter; vagrant, hobo, night walker, sleep walker; noctambulist, runabout, straphanger, swagman, swagsman; trecker, trekker, zingano, zingaro.

These words aren't linked to "Arab" - they're linked to "traveler." Or perhaps tourists should be offended at being linked to those pesky noctambulists. Ramblers should be offended at being linked to those dedicated Hadjis. Beach combers should be offended at being linked to those thin-air-breathing mountaineers.
[Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum,] said he was satisfied that the listing had been removed.

"We look forward to working with them, should they need a proper definition of the word. The easier definition is 'anyone who is Arabic,' which would have been more than sufficient," he said.
Could someone please teach Assaf the difference between a thesaurus and a dictionary?

Appropriate synonyms could include "Bedouin", "Arabian", "Saracen", and a variety of archaic terms. Instead, this knee-jerk attack on the thesaurus destroys knowledge - both of history and the English language.

On Roget's site, by the way, horrifying links remain:
  • "negro" remains linked to "brunette" (via "dark")
  • "white" remains linked to "ball and chain" (via "white elephant") and "bathtub gin" (via "white lightening")
  • "Indian" remains linked to "obliterate" (via "revoke" via "Indian give")
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee - Destroying Knowledge and Literacy, One Entry at a Time!

3 comments:

Lady Jane said...

I think it is rather stupid that people let words offend them so much.

Why don't they do what liberals always tell us when we object to content on the television: don't look at it!

LaurelMarie said...

That's great Lady Jane! I'm with you there. :o)

Ryan said...

This lady was in the library the other day raising a fuss about a definition in an old dictionary. Her problem? The n-word was improperly defined. She even filled out a form to complain about the dictionary's contents.

It's amazing that a stupid dictionary (or thesaurus for that matter) would receive such scrutiny, but porn on library Internet stations is a First Amendment right.