The Expert Series, Winter 2021: Vegan lexicography?

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» The Expert Series, Winter 2021: Vegan lexicography?

In the first edition of the Expert Series for 2021, Dr Emma Franklin considers language and the role of dictionaries, asking what kind of message do they convey about the role and status befitting nonhuman animals? How often are animals’ complexities written off in the turn of a page, or the click of a button? In this fascinating and eye-opening exploration into the world of lexicography, Dr Franklin encourages us to engage critically with all forms of language, especially those that are purported to give some impartial account of the lived realities of others.

I’ve always loved dictionaries, and have lots of them. They’re good for all sorts of things: checking the spelling of an obscure word; challenging a risky Scrabble entry; propping up computer monitors on WFH kitchen tables. But there are times when they can actually be unhelpful. In fact, if used improperly, I would argue that they can be dangerous – especially for animals.

Language, as famously stated by the American linguist Dwight Bolinger[1], is a loaded weapon, hidden where least suspected, and the laws against concealed weapons do not apply. By this he meant that much of the influencing power of language goes unchecked and unnoticed. This is precisely why language is so effective at transmitting ideology; when our guards are down, we’re more susceptible to absorbing views and attitudes without critically assessing what they really mean. In this article, I give particular attention to what I would consider one of the stealthiest carriers of ideology: the dictionary. No, nobody suspects the dictionary.

Let me ask you: when’s the last time you bought a physical monolingual dictionary, or else paid for a digital lexicographical product? Probably not that recently. If you’re anything like me, your immediate reflex to an ambiguous word is a quick and convenient Google search, free of charge. This is great for the user, but you can imagine what this abundance of free information has done to the traditional, paid-for dictionary publishing model. Print dictionaries are dying.

As I argued in a 2019 paper[2] – together with Professor Patrick Hanks, lexicographer and former editor-in-chief of Oxford English Dictionaries – the efficacy of free, online resources for providing the user with meaningful and relevant information can be surprisingly limited. This can be put down to a number of reasons. The first is that software engineers and lexicographers differ in their approaches to organising and linking lexicographical data, i.e. information about word meaning and phraseology. Secondly, online lexicographical resources can either rely on crowd-sourced definitions that are interesting, but not always informative or accurate, or else stow high-quality material behind a paywall. A third reason is that most online dictionaries are nothing more than decades-old print dictionaries that have simply been digitised and put online.

These issues are hard to get around, because dictionary-writing is a back-breaking, Herculean effort. To write a standard monolingual dictionary from scratch requires hundreds of thousands of hours of expert human labour, and without the kind of funding that was once provided by the global sales of print dictionaries, commercial lexicographical projects of this kind are not all that sustainable. It’s no secret, for example, that ‘new’ dictionaries borrow and build on entries from their predecessors, with the exception of pioneering work in data-driven corpus lexicography – that is, the use of large amounts of empirical linguistic evidence to inform, rather than merely illustrate, definitions of words. And while entry-borrowing is quite normal and defensible, and still involves a lot of work, it can also drag old ideas into new spaces.

Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, is estimated to have taken 588,000 hours to complete

Against these odds, modern dictionaries continue to be revised and updated, albeit on a much smaller scale than previously and at a very slow pace. But who wrote the original entries on which they are based? And who is doing the revising?

Contrary to common parlance, there is no such thing as the dictionary. There are many dictionaries, and there is no objective truth contained in any one of these. No, ‘the dictionary’ is not a neutral authority on anything: food, music, mathematics, botany. And while dictionaries are wonderfully rich and valuable sources of information and, in many cases, great works of art and ingenuity, they are also written by individuals: people with their own inescapable biases, preoccupations and blind spots, who come from their own particular cultural, linguistic and class backgrounds. The fact that there are many individuals involved in the creation and maintenance of dictionaries does not in itself eradicate this problem, as I will discuss later.

What professional lexicographers do have, and what gives them authority in describing and categorising linguistic entities, in my view, is a skillset that enables them to produce a consistent and logical inventory of terms, most notably a principled approach to entry-writing and a trained eye in observing relevant patterns. But this does not mean that lexicographers produce objective or value-free dictionaries. No such thing is possible; even data-driven dictionary entries are composed, tweaked, judged, edited, and published by idiosyncratic human individuals.

As you might expect, then, racism and sexism have been found to be lurking in English-language dictionaries.[3],[4],[5],[6],[7] This is not only because they have historically been written – for the most part[8] – by white men, but because ethnocentric and patriarchal thinking are intrinsic to the colonialist culture from which our modern English dictionaries originate, and upon which they continue to be built.

Just a small tip of this iceberg can be seen in the recent, high-profile case against Oxford University Press, in which more than 30,000 people including a number of academics have called for a revision of the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for ‘woman’ on account of its sexist, misogynistic language, with such synonyms as bint, maid, wench, mare and bitch. “I am not a bitch”, argued the petition organiser, Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, who found the term ‘woman’ to be associated with a number of offensive terms and illustrated with examples that reinforced sexist stereotypes, while the entry for ‘man’ did not include similar derogatory terms specific to men.

Without getting into the use of ‘animal’ words (e.g. bitch, mare, cow) as insults, particularly for women – that’s a whole book in itself – it is worth noting that language interventions such as this one require huge amounts of publicity and pressure from members of the public. They are also met with great resistance by dictionary publishers, who effectively act as gatekeepers and custodians of the knowledge encoded in language resources. As far as most lexicographers are concerned, their job is merely to describe, uncritically, the way language is actually used; it is not for them to decide to exclude or alter relevant lexical items on the basis that they could be harmful.

Negative representations of women are found across a range of language resources

The problem with this line of argument is that dictionary makers already do decide what to include and what not to include. They also decide in which order the senses of a word ought to be listed, how much space an entry should take up, the choice of relevant synonyms, the wording of the definition, and the examples that should be used to illustrate a particular meaning. The decision to be ‘apolitical’ is itself a political one. Thankfully, in this instance, Oxford eventually agreed to revise their entry, replacing the derogatory examples with more appropriate ones and labelling a number of terms as ‘offensive’ for the benefit of the reader.

Yes, dictionaries do sound bad, when we look at them that way: repositories of word meanings that are intrinsically biased and resistant to change – having inherited much of their wisdom from previous, outdated volumes – and whose construction is perceived innocently as a task of documenting reality rather than one of mediating and reproducing ideology. But, really, the dictionary is just the messenger. As Samuel Johnson himself said it, the lexicographer is merely the “drudge” in these massive, complicated undertakings.

What should concern us, as vegans and animal advocates, is that 100% of dictionary makers – and 100% of dictionary users – are humans. Our language, and every tool we use to describe it, is created by humans, for humans. While nonhuman animals do have a voice, and they do communicate with us very clearly, they cannot take a position as editor or publisher or lexicographer. How many thousands of dissenting nonhuman voices would it take to petition against their subjugation – in our language and everywhere else?

Let’s take a brief look at some dictionary entries relating to humans and other animals.

According to Google Dictionary – powered by Oxford Dictionaries – a ‘human being’ is a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.

First of all, according to this definition – if taken at face value, and definitions typically are, sometimes even in courts of law[9] – we could claim that gender-non-binary people are not human beings, nor are those who cannot stand upright, or those who cannot speak. I don’t need to explain the problems with this. Note also that it does not refer to the remarkable number of commonalities between humans and other animal species, such as our many shared behaviours, our common ancestors, and our basic needs for physical and psychological safety. Nor does it cite the inferior abilities and lack of certain powers, senses and modes of communication that could be used to distinguish human beings from other animals, such as our natural inability to fly, breathe underwater, use echolocation, and so on. The fact that humans are instead distinguished from other animals in terms of their superior abilities is an example of subtle, human-supremacist ideology in a so-called value-free dictionary entry. This is one of the concealed weapons Bolinger warned us of.

The entry for ‘human’ directs us both to the adjective form, relating to or characteristic of humankind, as well as the noun form, human being, for which it lists as ‘similar’ the terms person, individual and soul, while its ‘opposite’ terms are animal and alien. Humans and animals are opposites, then. In fact, animals are so ‘other’ that they are synonymically closer to aliens than to their fellow earthlings.

The entry for ‘animal’ is also telling. Its noun form has several entries, ranging from
a living organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli, to a person without human attributes or civilizing influences, especially someone who is very cruel, violent, or repulsive. Terms listed as ‘similar’ include beast, brute, monster, demon, and the deindividuating non-countable noun, fauna. And although I am cherry-picking here (for the sake of brevity), I would also like to flag a sense listed under the adjective form of ‘animal’: characteristic of the physical and instinctive needs of animals; of the flesh rather than the spirit or intellect.

Again, a seemingly impartial account of reality has actually foregrounded a range of anti-animal sentiments and – I would argue – myths, such as that nonhumans are to be understood in terms of their dangerousness (beast, monster), their lack of humanness (whatever that is), and their lack of ‘spirit’ or cognitive qualities. A great many nonhuman animals are, as we all know, highly social beings with many of the same general traits that humans pride themselves on: emotions, desires, thoughts, problem-solving abilities, social bonds. The fact that details such as these are missing from the entry speaks volumes about what we believe we owe to nonhuman animals.

Search for the term ‘cow’, and you will find a fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox, kept to produce milk or beef, as well as an unpleasant or disliked woman. Contrast these with something like, a typically sensitive, curious and playful animal with the tendency to form strong maternal bonds, and whose natural lifespan is 18-22 years.

Search for the term ‘chicken’, and you will find a domestic fowl kept for its eggs or meat, as well as meat from a chicken, and a cowardly person, rather than something like, a sentient individual noted for their rich plumage and ability to form social bonds with others. We could also simply describe a ‘chicken’ as a member of the species Gallus gallus domesticus, in the same way that a ‘human being’ is introduced as a member of the species Homo sapiens. These suggestions are off-the-cuff, but you get my drift.

Search for the term ‘person’, and you will be met with a human being regarded as an individual. Personhood is arguably far more complex than this.

I could go on, and I would encourage anyone reading this to investigate such entries for themselves. What kind of message do they convey about the role and status befitting nonhuman animals? While I sympathise with lexicographers, who will maintain that they are simply ‘reporting the truth’, I would argue strongly that this is not the full truth, nor the fair or sole truth. Yes, humans use other animals for all sorts of reasons. But whether that should define one’s entire being is something that ought to be seriously questioned.

Dictionaries, then – these sites of ideological and social struggle[10], too often lauded as artefacts of objective truth – should be respected, but also handled with extreme care. How many times have you settled a nuanced dispute with a simple dictionary definition? And how often are animals’ complexities written off in the turn of a page, or the click of a button? Let’s engage critically with all forms of language, but especially those that are purported to give some impartial account of the lived realities of others.


The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

[1] Bolinger, D. (1980). Language – The Loaded Weapon: the Use and Abuse of Language Today. New York: Longman.


[2] Hanks, P. and Franklin, E. (2019). Do Online Resources Give Satisfactory Answers to Questions About Meaning and Phraseology?. In International Conference on Computational and Corpus-Based Phraseology (pp. 159-172). Springer, Cham.


[3] Krishnamurthy, R. (1996). Ethnic, Racial and Tribal: The Language of Racism? In C. R. Caldas-Coulthard and M. Coulthard (Eds.), Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis (pp. 129-150). London: Routledge.


[4] Treichler, P. A. (1997). From Discourse to Dictionary: How Sexist Meanings are Authorized. In C. Logan (Ed.), Counterbalance: Gendered Perspectives on Writing and Language (pp. 197-211). Peterborough: Broadview Press.


[5] Visser't Hooft, B. (1997). Systematic Racism in Dictionaries: The Case of the Dutch. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 18(1), 203-211.


[6] Haraway, D. (2001). “Gender” for a Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word. In E. A. Castelli (Ed.), Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader (pp. 49-75). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


[7] Benson, P. (2002) Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary. London & New York: Routledge.


[8] Russell, L. R. (2018). Women and Dictionary-Making: Gender, Genre, and English Language Lexicography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[9] Hobbs, P. (2011). Defining the law: (Mis)using the dictionary to decide cases. Discourse Studies, 13(3), 327-347.


[10] Chen, W. (2019). Towards a Discourse Approach to Critical Lexicography. International Journal of Lexicography. doi: 10.1093/ijl/ecz003.


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