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In Defense of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

School systems and libraries don’t buy all sorts of books they deem age-inappropriate. The ALA, of course, considers such non-purchases censorship, despite the widespread availability of the books.

In their propaganda about banned books, they slide down the slippery slope from challenges to bans to censorship. If they’re right, and of course they aren’t, then the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was censored, at least for a few days. From a California news article:

The Menifee Union School District is forming a committee to review whether dictionaries containing the definitions for sexual terms should be permanently banned from the district’s classrooms, a district official said Friday.

The 9,000-student K-8 district this week pulled all copies of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary after an Oak Meadows Elementary School parent complained about a child stumbling across definitions for "oral sex."

The decision was made without consultation with the district’s school board and has raised concerns among First Amendment experts and some parents.

While I and most reasonably intelligent people disagree with the ALA mislogic on censorship, it’s hard not to find this slightly ridiculous. I mean, it’s one thing to leave books about teenagers performing oral sex on each other off of grade-school reading lists. If characters in a book are described having sex in any titillating way (and if sex isn’t titillating, what’s the point?), then it’s porn of some sort.

But dictionaries certainly aren’t porn, except possibly in some metaphorical extension like "word porn." Those of us fascinated or obsessed by words and language use dictionaries to satisfy our craving for word porn. If you’re the kind of person who can cite the etymology of various words or who understands the pronunciation symbols in dictionaries or who delights in obscure words, you’re probably a word porn addict. There’s a 12-step program for you that involves watching a lot of television.

According to the story, the dictionaries had been around for years to help the advanced readers look up works they didn’t know. That seemed to have lasted until a child actually looked up an unknown word.

Fortunately, the ban was lifted, and the dictionaries returned to the classes, but there’s still the option for parents to restrict their children’s access to the dictionaries. The ban itself was utterly ridiculous, but even the restriction is suspect. Parents keeping their children away from dictionaries is a bad idea.

First, looking up dirty words is why children go do dictionaries in the first place. It is a time-honored tradition, and for many children their first exposure to reference books. There’s probably many a linguist or librarian who started their journey by cuddling up with a Webster’s dictionary trying to figure out what that word muttered in the 6th grade lunchroom actually meant. Dictionaries without dirty words remove the incentive children have to learn what words mean.

Second, there are no dirty words. There are only words that are inappropriate in different contexts. The great thing is, dictionaries tell us not only the definitions of words, but their connotations as well. Webster’s notes that various words are "usually obscene" or "usually vulgar." As a child, I didn’t realize the notation referred just to the word and not to the act. Consider  fart: "often vulgar : to expel intestinal gas from the anus." Yes, that’s often vulgar, all right, especially in an elevator.

Third, even if there were dirty words, "oral sex" isn’t one of them. (One of the commenters to the CBS News article linked above tried to argue that "oral sex" wasn’t a word but a phrase, and thus doesn’t belong in a dictionary. Obviously that person has never used a dictionary. Regareless, "oral sex" isn’t a dirty phrase, either.)

Fourth, there are no dictionaries for advanced readers that won’t have numerous instances of sexual terms. Human beings, and many other animals I’m told, have sex, and they use words to name objects and actions. Parents might opt to give their children a children’s dictionary, or more likely a Bible dictionary, but that won’t help their children become better readers. Advanced readers want to know what words mean, period. If kids don’t find the definition of the word they want, they’ll go to another source, like, say, the M-W Online Dictionary, which has all those words anyway. What do concerned parents prefer: going to the M-W Dictionary to look up "oral sex," or typing it into Google? On Google they can e even do an image search, because Webster’s doesn’t illustrate that particular entry.

Fifth, since eliminating the dirty words eliminates the incentive to go to the dictionary in the first place, it also eliminates serendipitous learning. Readers also have a habit of browsing dictionaries. Print dictionaries are much better for serendipitous vocabulary building than online dictionaries, because of the otherwise irrational organization by alphabet. I’m looking at my old M-W Collegiate Dictionary at the moment. Let’s say I wanted to look up the word cuneiform, certainly an unusual word for many. I also find other wonderful words such as cumulonimbus, cunctation, cupidity, and…uh oh…cunnilingus. On the other hand, if I go to look up cunnilingus, I might also discover cuneiform and cupidity.

Sixth, the definition of oral sex isn’t particularly graphic. In Webster’s, it’s "oral stimulation of the genitals." That’s the sort of racy language that gets my heart pumping faster! It might force the reader to look up genitals and create a whole new round of serendipitous vocabulary building. Genome, gentility, gentrification, genuflect, the list goes on. Compare that definition to those of oral sex at the Urban Dictionary.

Seventh, oral sex, really? That’s it? It’s not like the child was looking up blowjob (in M-W) or carpet munching (not in M-W). Children are going to learn about sexual terms and acts somehow. Wouldn’t it be better in the controlled atmosphere of one of the best English dictionaries in the world instead of school hallways, the Internet, or the back seat of a Toyota?

Eighth, and finally, the concept of a "sexual term" is too fluid to enact such a ban. Spermatozoa, zygote, embryogenesis. Those are sexual terms. I guess they don’t mention sexual acts. What about copulation or masturbation? Is there a dictionary that won’t have those? Here are some terms that could be considered "sexual terms": desire, erect, quiver, tremble, throb, pound, thrust, vibrate, slide, penetrate, flick, lick, tease, and that’s not even considering biological nouns like nipple or genitals. Where would the madness stop?

Those crazy Californian parents are muddle-headed. They’ve confused pornography with lexicography. If they would read their dictionaries, perhaps they could tell the difference.

If parents are allowed the option of having their children use a different dictionary, I suggest the Oxford English Dictionary instead, which not only has a more descriptive definition of oral sex, but illustrates the meaning with a limerick. From the OED:

"oral sex n. sexual activity in which the genitals of one partner are stimulated by the mouth of the other.
[1943 in G. Legman Limerick (1953) 98 Said an airy young fairy named Jess, ‘The oral requires some finesse, While in method the anal Is terribly banal, And the trousers will get out of press.’]"

The best English language dictionary in the world illustrates its definition with a dirty limerick. Now that’s what I call a reference book.



  1. Cartophiliac says:

    Oh, great… now AL is going to be banned in California.

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    Fairly anti-intellectual move, California.

    I might expect this from Kansas, but not you.

    We’re done.

  3. Jed Clampett-Cartman says:

    Well the next thing you know, ol, AL a hypocrite.

    Maybe you should load up the truck and move to California to practice your tirade.

  4. Dr. Brooks says:

    Why does a grade school have copies of a college dictionary? What a waste of tax payer money….

  5. Joe the Libertarian says:

    I agree.

    Schools are a waste of tax payer money.

    If you have kids, you should pay to send them to school. Don’t make society pick up the tab for your casual sex practices.

  6. Library Pig says:

    Depending on the juxtapostion of people, a fart on an escalator could be more vulgar than one on an elevator. Less we forget, the late JD Salinger included a mirthful anecdote about assembly flatulence in Cather in the Rye, which for the past week at least, has been considered an iconic contribution to modern literature.

  7. Judge Judy says:

    Just remember that a fart is not an expression of free speech.

    Unless of course you are a member of the Walton Klan and are using it to express your God-given corporate free speech.

  8. My AL, want an extensive vocabulary you have.

  9. “My AL, want an extensive vocabulary you have.”

    That comes from hours of reading the dictionary (one-handed) looking up definitions for words for oral sex.

  10. Post postmodern Librarian says:

    “My AL, want an extensive vocabulary you have.”

    All the better to seduce and offend you :)

  11. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    I’d be willing to bet the parents in favor of banning don’t engage in such repellent behavior. Poor idiotic blobs …

  12. hardeharhar says:

    Cather in the rye, or Antonia in a shed, they were both willing.

  13. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    “Fairly anti-intellectual move, California.

    I might expect this from Kansas, but not you.

    We’re done.”

    Whoa there…..we are NOT talking about Los Angeles or San Francisco….we are talking about a tiny town out in the southern desert area….called Menifee…that’s out south of Temecula….farmer towns, they might as well be from any red-neck, illiterate state! There are actively ignorant people all across the U.S. in CA as well….

  14. Snuffy Smif says:

    if youall dont gets no book larning youall aint sheet.

    dis is why flyober country peoples should jes be ignored weather day be in kansass, ketuky or californyeahe.

    wes all knows youall gots to go to some fansy pants kollege and goes to werk fer some place like frick u to be someone

    youall come back now ye here

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