What’s in a Word?

Posted October 17, 2016 by Johnson Pham

Dictionaries are not perfect. Like us, they are subject to bias. At most, they can provide a resource for cursory definitions of words, because they have such a brief nature. This makes a standard dictionary actually not that reliable when it comes to more nuanced topics, like anything to do with gender, race, or even pathology.  That being said, the most common response I get from people trying to silence me with regard to social issues is them pointing to a dictionary definition of words like racism, transphobia,, or appropriation. So much of my daily conversations, arguments, and exchanges are informed by this difference in definitions.  Their line of reasoning rests with an idea that the dictionary is the final arbiter of meaning. Not by any means. The dictionary is only as useful as we use it as a starting position, and it’s intellectually dishonest to assume that an entry of 2-3 lines is sufficient to describe each and every word.

The first English dictionary was compiled by Samuel Johnson, a man who wrote Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 . It contained over 42,000 words, and he wrote all of the entries himself over a period of seven years. For the purpose of demonstrating a lexicographer’s bias, Johnson only included words of which he was familiar, and in the process, spelled out his own human prejudices and inclinations. Samuel Johnson fleshed out words related to topics he knew, while leaving other topics (such as musical instruments) vague and ambiguous. Although his dictionary is considerably less of an authority for lexical resource than Websters’ Dictionary, the point is this: dictionaries don’t necessarily offer specialized knowledge, and the expectation for them to instantly create understanding is misleading.

From Johnson’s first iteration of the dictionary, we can learn much from the limitations of dictionaries, including that some words are actually super complicated, and carry their own respective hxstorical baggages. For instance, a Webster’s definition of racism places semantic weight “that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”, which is true, yes, but doesn’t do much to paint a wholistic picture of racism. In this rather clinical and carefully pieced entry, it’s easy for the leypersxn to detach themselves from the gravitas that the term contains. This definition leaves out the complicated historical intertwinings of white supremacy that inform what is racism hxstorically and today. It leaves out horrific examples of racist legislature, chattel slavery, and ethnic cleansings because the entry isn’t enough to sufficiently develop an understanding of the implications of racism. It fails to address at the end of the day, racism is a relationship of power, and has been welded as a method of control. It doesn’t address any of the other oppressive schemata that reinforce and uphold racism.  Here we can see a word is its own world — it should be a firmly held belief that some words require more information to truly understand their scope.

Words also carry persxnal definitions. I started calling myself queer freshmxn year of college because “gay” no longer worked. Not adequately, at least. In some ways, it felt like a lie when I repeated it to myself. In the place of “gay”, “queer” worked because the ambiguity (read, possibilities) of the word made up for the difference I felt in-between any other identifier. That’s the beauty of queerness — it alludes a neat definition. It’s polysemic. So much of daily life is colored in the ways we address and relate to each other. This makes the words we choose to define ourselves so important. It’s what I decided, at least.

That being said, depending on the day if you ask me about my queerness, I can provide you with a hundred different answers and definitions. But what makes one definition more accurate than another? The quality that queerness brings is this: it describes and encapsulates a type of dynamic you can’t place neatly in one definition. This is what I mean though. People don’t fit neatly in predetermined definitions, or at least, not in the way you would expect. This is because queerness is supposed to mess with your expectation of how to live in the world. It escapes definition. Other folks have different perceptions on queerness. Like some folks hate it, citing a time where “queer” was more a pejorative than empowering. But,  I choose to side with queerness on the dimension that it spells an endless set of possibilities. In the same frame, Jose Esteban Munoz describes queerness as perpetually existing in the future, or utopian in nature. Jack Halberstam describes queerness and queer time as elusive, a “[turning] away from the narrative coherence of [straighthood]”. These are definitions I hold onto when it comes to mind how I approach myself, my body, and my queerness.

I can’t think of many things stronger than the desire to live out life exactly the way you want. To be called what you want to be called. To have a word that holds more than just sound and letters, but also a level of meaning that contains its own universe. You won’t be able to find that out in a dictionary. But feel free to ask me persxnally for a better understanding.