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Expurgation, Steven Alexander, August 12, 1994

Mr. Mark Morris
Public Relations Dept.
Milton Bradley, Inc.
443 Shaker Road
East Long Meadow, MA 01028

Ms. Cathy Meredith
Vice President of Marketing
Milton Bradley Company
443 Shaker Road
East Longmeadow, MA 01028

Mr. John D. Williams, Jr.
Executive Director
National Scrabble Association
c/o Williams & Company
120 Front Street Garden
P.O. Box 700
Greenport, NY 11944
August 12, 1994

Dear Sirs and Madam:

I write to ask you to reconsider your decision to remove words from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary based on their offensiveness.

Capture the Language

There are many reasons to do with freedom of expression why words should not be removed from the OSPD. Since this is a Scrabble dictionary, probably the strongest relates to the nature of Scrabble (the crossword game of that brand, of course). The game is charming because it is based on natural language. While the OSPD has been referred to as a 600-plus page rule book, no one would be attracted to the game if the dictionary had arbitrary contents.

As the OED says:

"[A] Dictionary has definite limits: the lexicographer must, like the naturalist, `draw the line somewhere', in each diverging direction. He must include all the `Common Words' of literature and conversation, and such of the scientific, technical, slang, dialectical, and foreign words as are passing into common use ...." 1 CompactOED, p. x.
There is doubt along these directions as to whether specialized words are part of the language. But words every adult knows must be considered in `common use' and thus part of the language. We cannot prevent them from entering the vocabulary of children by omitting them from dictionaries.

Dictionaries exist to describe the language, not guide it. Few terms are as offensive as "ethnic cleansing," yet what political glossary for the 1990s could omit it and do a decent job? Part of the meaning of an offensive word is its offense. To fulfil the dictionary's purpose while disclaiming any endorsement of vulgar words, simply say so. Use the locution of the OED: "Not now in decent use." 2 CompactOED, p. 2791 ("Shit").

The Impossible Task

Drawing lines has its own pitfalls. Whose lines of offensiveness should be used? "The Jews are not the only indignant visitors to American editorial offices." Mencken, p. 299. A few examples will suffice.

"Bugger" could be removed in the sense of to commit sodomy, but "buggery" is a term of law (Chambers, p. 218) dating to 1514. MW10, p. 149. Yet that word derives from the ascription of sodomy to Bulgarians, "believed capable of any crime." Chambers, p. 218. How can "piss" require removal while "pissoir" is okay? How can one read the King James Bible then, in which it occurs seven times? Mencken, p. 308 n. 1. How is one to make sense of a dictionary with such lacunae?

Many still consider homosexuality and homosexual acts reprehensible. Therefore, terms casting opprobrium on them are widely acceptable. So, on what basis are these to be cast out? Because "right-thinking" people would not use them? In that case, many more words must be removed.

The entry in the OSPD of a term as supposedly inoffensive may mask the actual semantics.

For example, "kafir," defined there as "a cereal grass" (p. 303) derives from the original "kaffir," "a non-Muslim, an infidel." McArthur, p. 382. From this meaning it was borrowed by Europeans in southern Africa for black Africans, "often used neutrally in earlier times, but generally disparaging, increasingly resented, and now an actionable in South Africa." Id. Finally, it acquired an attributive sense of objects associated with such persons, as "kaffir beer" ("beer made by blacks from grain sorghum," id.) and "kaffir corn" (Chambers, p. 911 "sorghum").

"Redneck" is "a derog[atory] term for a poor white farm labourer in the southwestern states." Chambers, p. 1443.

Shylock is an allusion to the cultural stereotype of Jews in The Merchant of Venice. It is in OSPD as a verb, linked semantically to the verb "jew". "Mickey," as in "a drugged drink" (OSPD p. 355) is clearly from the association between liquor bars and Irish ("The name is generic for an Irishman. The reference is to the tough Irish bars of the XIX in the NYC Tenderloin" Ciardi, p. 248), at least as offensive as the term "mick" for an Irishman.

"Solecism" is "an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence," attributed to "inhabitant[s] of Soloi [a] city in ancient Cilicia where a substandard form of Attic was spoken." MW10, p. 1118. Why is this not offensive? Merely because they're not around to complain? And what about "hun"? What is to be done with "redneck," widely considered derogatory, but turned by Presidential candidate George Wallace "into an honorific in white, working-class Southern society." Allen, p. 90.

What would be done for words longer than eight letters? "Hillbilly" is "[a] generally condescending and offensive, but occasionally humorous term for a white person from a mountainous and rural ('backwoods') area in the south-eastern US." McArthur, p. 471

The unmentionableness, within H.L. Mencken's memory, of certain words in American speech such as cock (including in such combinations as cockroach), whore, leg, wife, bull, shirt ("To use the word shirt in the presence of a woman was `an open insult'," p. 302), seduce, chair, woman and nipple, shows that language changes. We should be open to it.

Salvaging words by finding them inoffensive meanings is pointless. The expurgators may fear an onlooker being offended by a word played. But the fact that "damn" has a polite meaning -- used even by clergy -- does not reduce its shock value when one seeing it on a board, lacking the player's polite annotation, perceives its more viscerally felt meaning.

Allow Open Communication

The OSPD's publishers and licensor of the trademark Scrabble may not want to associate themselves with certain words. I join the ritual avowal that I find many of these terms offensive. (I refrain from asserting credentials by declaring membership in some of the groups slurred.) But removing them from discourse does not further the source of the removal impulse, for two reasons.

First, people should be able to express themselves, so we can know them better. The removable words can be used in good literature. Who would deny a future Chaucer use of the word "cunt" in a future "Wife of Bath"? And some speakers will use such words for our protection.

"Does outlawing such words change the people who might otherwise use them?" Hasse, p. 425 (citing as an example Jesse Jackson's use of "hymietown" and what it revealed). "[I]f men in an orgy of resentment, though (in the physical sense) they articulate, are really no more speaking -- are saying no more -- than a snarling animal, this is perhaps all for the best." Lewis, p. 325.
Second, the answer to bad speech is more speech. Even the most offensive of the words must be printable in order to discuss and therefore disarm them. We need open discussion with children.

"According to the Oxford University Press's Practical English Usage, `children usually avoid swearing in front of adults, so as not to shock or annoy them, and adults avoid swearing in front of children for similar reasons.'" Harris, p. 418.
"These words express the anxieties, jealousies, envies, resentments, and anger of groups in conflict." Allen, p. 5. Talking about them, we can "defuse and neutralize the[ir] horrific effect." Id. p. 63. Even if the richness of language must be filtered for children, let us not lower adults to the same level.
In short, an official dictionary for Scrabble should be formed by accepting an independent lexicographer's answer to "What are the words of English?"

Sincerely yours,

Steven Alexander


Allen, Irving Lewis, Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP. New York: Bergin & Garvey. 1990.
The Chambers Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. 1993.
John Ciardi, A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions & Intriguing Facts. New York: Harper & Row. 1980.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Glasgow: Oxford University Press. 1971.
Harris, Roy, "Lars Porsena Revisited," in Ricks, Christopher & Michaels, Leonard, The State of the Language. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1990. pp. 411-421.
Hasse, Liz. "Violent Acts and Prurient Thoughts," in Ricks pp. 424-432.
C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2nd ed. London: Cambridge University Press. 1967.
H.L. Mencken, The American Language. 4th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1937
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. Springfield: Merriam Webster. 1993.

"You taught me Language, and my profit on't // Is, I know how to curse." Shakespeare, "The Tempest", Act I, Scene 2. There will be Calibans, and we need to know how to understand them.