If you look up the definition of “gay” on an Apple device, it’ll tell you you’re “foolish, stupid, or unimpressive.”
But here’s the thing. Dictionaries are long, and you can’t expect every company that sticks a dictionary into its software to comb through and check every single definition. Apparently, Apple gets most of its definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, and sure enough, there it is: they have the exact same phrasing for “gay.”
The problem isn’t that Apple let one lousy definition slip through. And the problem isn’t even Apple’s reaction (they called the first person to discover the definition to let her know that they were dealing with it).
The problem is that it’s actually an accurate definition, and should stay. No, wait, hear us out.
The purpose of a dictionary is not to command or correct our language. It’s to observe and report the way that we use words. And that’s how some people (bad people, people with unexamined prejudice) use the word “gay.” It hurts, and the dictionary is doing its job by documenting that.
A dictionary isn’t like the president of the language, with the authority to make judgements and issue commandments about how we are or aren’t supposed to change how we talk. It’s an anthropologist, studying our language and maintaining a record of what we mean.
That’s why you’ll also find “nigger” and “fag” and “kike” in Apple’s dictionary. Look up “spade” and you’ll find “a black person,” which is a slur that’s fallen so far out of favor that most people don’t even know it’s a slur. On all of these definitions — as well as the objectionable definition for “gay” — the dictionary notes that the usage is offensive.
Apple places “a swindle” in the definition of “gyp,” and “nonunion or unlicensed” under “gypsy,” definitions with which Romani might take issue.
Their definition of “retarded” doesn’t include “very foolish or stupid,” but that’s the only definition in the NOAD. And Merriam Webster has an entry for “indian giver.” (Also, while you’re clicking around, check out this jaw-dropping album art.)
If you haven’t had enough, we also recommend that you whip out your iPhone and look up “colored,” “coolie,” “feringhee,” “frog,” “jock,” “lezzy,” “negress,” “paddy,” “paki,” “squaw,” “taffy,” and “wetback.”
So why do we bring all this up? Just to point out that some words are offensive. And some people use offensive words to hurt other people, which is terrible. It’s those terrible people who are the problem, not the dictionary for noticing them.
Erasing evidence of the problem doesn’t solve anything. What do we gain by denying that anyone who says “gay” means to say “stupid”? Or that no one has ever been called “wetback”? When some sheltered young person looks up “paki,” they need to know “oh, that’s offensive, I probably shouldn’t say that,” or “oh, the person who just called me that is definitely a racist.”
Those offensive definitions need to stay, at least while they’re still in common usage. (It might be time to add “anachronistic” to “spade.”) Yeah, it sucks to see “stupid” as a synonym for what you are. But to take away those offensive definitions is to deny that we were ever the victims of them.
Selectively deleting painful definitions is whitewashing history. Apple should stand up to it, and leave the definition as it is.