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Dictionaries change even slower than church


During Advent last year, my twin called. She was fishing for gift ideas. I told her what I’d told her many times before, that I’d always wanted a dictionary from my twin the writer. I could hear her eyes roll.

Nevertheless, last year, under the Christmas tree with a card declaring, “Ya get what ya ask for” was a 1998 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The dictionary was labeled as “celebrating a century of new words.” It had added euro, feng shui, rightsize, search engine, URL this past year.

I used my new dictionary without much thought until I looked up laity. To my surprise, I found that layman is “a person who is not a member of the clergy” while a laywoman is “a member of the laity.” I thought, “That’s odd.” It seemed to me that the definitions should be consistent.

On my way to another word that same day, my eye caught the picture of a cassock. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition and found that cassocks are “worn by clergy and laymen.”

Now, my curiosity went into overdrive. I looked up altar server. I could only find altar boy. Altar girl and altar server were not defined. I was incredulous. Imagine a proud little girl not finding her church ministry in the dictionary!

On a roll, I thought up more Catholic words to look up. I noticed that, like the definitions of layman and laywoman, the definitions of brother and sister were also not consistent, and neither were monk and nun. Brothers were essentially defined as “not priests,” which I found very unfair to their ministries.

I was most distressed, however, by Merriam-Webster’s definition of Eucharist. It defined Eucharist as synonymous with Communion, which it is not. As we lose priests, some Catholics have been confused by the distinction between Communion services and the Eucharist. Merriam-Webster’s would not enlighten them. I couldn’t let this pass.

The back of the dictionary listed Merriam-Webster’s Web site. From there, I got a general e-mail address and sent an e-mail titled “M-W’s Collegiate Dictionary -- 10th edition” into the Merriam-Webster’s corporate cyberspace. The next day I received a reply from James G. Lowe, senior editor.

In our ensuing flurry of e-mail exchanges, I was heartened by Lowe’s receptivity. He agreed that the definitions needed to be updated: that altar girl should be added and that feminine and masculine versions of definitions should be consistent. He did a word search to uncover all the uses of clergyman (40) and layman (9) that needed to be changed within the definitions of other words. As we continued our dialogue, he decided to assign a single editor to review all the poorly defined Catholic words that I had brought to his attention.

As I think about this experience, Margaret Mead comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” At the same time, the aura around the dictionary as an objective repository of our language diminished. I learned the truth of the adage: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Merriam-Webster’s, while touting its inclusion of Internet terms, did not include altar girls.

Out of continued curiosity, I decided to look up Catholic terms in other current dictionaries, so I went to a bookstore. Some of the current dictionaries did better than others on words such as Eucharist and sister and brother. To my astonishment, however, all the current dictionaries I found define altar boys, but none define altar girls or altar servers. Even Webster’s American Family Dictionary published by Random House, which brightly advertises that it “includes Bible terms,” does not define altar girls.

Looking these words up, I began to appreciate the difficulty that inclusive language presents for dictionaries. Dictionaries formerly needed only to define layman, for example. Now, they need to define three terms: layman, laywoman and layperson, as well as their plurals. Most dictionaries create separate entries for each of the words, a redundant tripling of definitions that allows them to claim the distinction of offering the “most definitions.”

The most offensive solution from an inclusive language point of view came from the Oxford Dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. They list laymen as the plural, laywoman as the feminine, and laywomen as the feminine plural under the definition of the word, layman. They also do not define layperson. The most progressive definitions belonged to the American Heritage Dictionaries published by Houghton Mifflin. They define layman as a man, laywoman as a woman, and layperson as a man or woman. Thus, layman is not a generic, including both men and women. Instead, words connote what they denote: man means man; woman means woman; person means person, male or female.

Merriam-Webster’s will correct its definitions of the Catholic words I brought to its attention. Dictionaries should define Catholic terms and sacraments to reflect the present state of our church, but dictionaries are changing even more slowly than our slowly changing church. It’s up to us, I discovered, to become advocates with the dictionaries as well as in the church, so that our dictionaries do not lag too far behind the changes in our church.

My sister’s note on my dictionary was even truer than I knew: “Ya get what ya ask for.”

Michele Marie White is a liturgical choreographer and dancer. She lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999