Sunday, August 07, 2005

Racism In Dictionary!

I wanted to write about this irritating topic a while ago, but it took me some time to make some research and have my post based on evidence and facts rather than simple news I’ve read. It’s a bit long, but if you’re Arab, you HAVE to read it…
The thing is, a while ago Serdal posted a link to an interview(AR) with Dr. Wafa Kamel about racism in Webster Dictionary. Reading along I was shocked to know that Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Collegiate Thesaurus has enlisted in the 3rd Edition an entry that reads:
Entry Word: arab
Function: noun
Text: 1
Synonyms VAGABOND, clochard, drifter, floater, hobo, roadster, street arab, tramp, vag, vagrant
|| 2
Synonyms PEDDLER, ||duffer, hawker, higgler, huckster, monger, mongerer, outcrier, packman, vendor

Source: Unabridged Merriam-webster(You will need to subscribe)

Not only this, but it defines anti-Semitism as “opposition to Zionism”, look below, you’ll find 2 definitions, notice the second.
Main Entry: an•ti-sem•i•tism Pronunciation Guide
Pronunciation: () -
Function: noun
Usage: usually capitalized S
1 : hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group often accompanied by social, economic, and political discrimination -- compare RACISM
2 : opposition to Zionism : sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel

Source: Unabridged Merriam-webster(You will need to subscribe)

Members of the World Arab Translators’ Association (WATA) have politely contacted the responsible people in Webster requesting clarifications to know on what ground they based their definitions, stressing that dictionaries are meant to be educational and unbiased.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary staff responded, politely as well, arguing that some definitions are citations generated from a wide variety of carefully edited prose, and that a word or new sense of a word is entered into the dictionary only if it has been used in a broad spectrum of publications for a substantial period of time. Therefore, they said, they will research carefully and revise the definition of anti-Semitism to make sure they provide only accurate definitions in coming versions, and that the "opponents of Israel" sense will most likely be deleted based on its lack of current citational evidence.

Now back to the “ARAB” definition. According to Webster the most commonly-used sense of "Arab" has no true lexical synonyms. And that there are senses of "Arab" that have been used historically and are less than flattering: like the senses objected to above.
Assistant Professor of Translation, Mr. Ahmad Al-Laithy (PhD), a WATA member, wrote Webster Staff explaining that the “historically usage” argument seems to be applied to no other race but Arabs, which means Webster is using double standards and that’s not acceptable. Supporting his point of view, he gave an example of the word “jew”, which is commonly used as a verb in American English meaning: to bargain down the price. Even though this word is common the Webster dictionaries never includes it most probably because it’s an offensive usage.

On the other hand, Professors of Linguistics from USA and Europe pointed out the discrepancy between the treatment of Arab and other people. They also supported WATA explaining that even if the dictionary’s content is reflecting language usage, responsible editing requires removal of racial epithets such as this definition of “Arab”. As for the Anti-Semitism definition, some raised an objection on categorical grounds saying that Zionism is a political movement. Hence, opposition to Zionism is also a political movement. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is properly regarded as a specific type of racism. And that many Jews and Arabs (Semites all) are among those people who oppose Zionism.

Dr. Wafa Kamel, pointed out a very important issue: if Webster claims that the definition of “Arab” provided was commonly used, then why didn’t other world dictionaries state it as well?
Another point is: any good dictionary using modern and advanced technologies MUST clarify the roots or source or fields of usage of a certain word, therefore if they claim that “Arab” in that unpleasant definition was used in a certain period of time they should’ve mentioned it; if that was what Arabs stood for in a certain area, period, book, dialect, slang, metaphor, …etc., it should be mentioned clearly to avoid any offence or inaccuracy.

It’s to be mentioned that many Arab and American newspapers talked about this issue, and as a result many Arab intellectuals and Organisations have called to boycott Webster dictionary and any other dictionary that is to be proven to use such inaccurate and offensive definitions.

My Personal Opinion:
Webster has always been a reliable and prestigious dictionary in the Arab world. Such an incident did damage its reputation for sure, and I find it a normal reaction for many Arabs: teachers, institutions, journalists, writers, translators and intellectuals to call for a boycott of Webster’s Dictionaries.
I myself was really offended, because even if Arabs gained an unpleasant reputation due to any reason in a certain period of time, why limit our definition to this only? Why don’t people look at our history, when the word Arab stood for nobility, generosity, and scientific advancement? Why don’t they look at our old and present achievements? Why don’t they mention our good sides too, just like they do with many other races?

I’m sure there are other dictionaries that offend Arabs, and for that the first thing I’d do from now on when buying or using a dictionary will be looking up 2 words: Arabs & Muslims.
If they reflect unbiased reality, that’s fine, if not, then I wont only stop at not buying it, but I’ll write about it for the whole world to know, and will ask all the ones I know to boycott them in all possible ways.
Because really, I wont be spending the money I earn with effort on a dictionary that regards me as an unpleasant awful person who deserves nothing but hatred and disgust…

Special Thanks:
I would like to thank Dr. Wafa Kamel for helping me with the supporting material and evidence. Without her I wouldn’t have managed to get all the material I got and I would’ve never been able to get a clear and accurate picture of the situation. Thank you so much…
And of course, many thanks to WATA, who played a very positive role in this issue and protested in the most civilized and peaceful way...