Vulgar or correct, 'anything is grist,' editor of Random House dictionary says

December 22, 1991|By John Blades | John Blades,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- During the 44 years she has commuted to work on public transportation, Leonore Hauck has been exposed repeatedly to language that the dictionary calls "vulgar" or "slang." Even though Ms. Hauck says she's "still of an age where I don't like to hear them," she isn't repelled by the four- or six- or 12-letter words that are so popular on the buses, subways and sidewalks of Manhattan. On the contrary, she's a connoisseur, habitually jotting down new or imaginative improvisations on rude or obscene language.

"Anything is grist for the mill," explained Ms. Hauck, whose latest mill" is the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, one of numerous reference books on which she has labored at the publishing house. Having been managing editor of both the college dictionary and the second edition of the Random House unabridged, published in 1987, Ms. Hauck has not only heard every word in the book, she has been partly responsible for many of the more offensive ones showing up in it.

Talking about how obscenities have become commonplace in dictionaries, to the dismay of hard-core Grundys ("narrow-minded conventional" people, according to the new Random House), Ms. Hauck recited a number of variations on one outhouse expletive, pairing it with such suffixes as "-face" and "-kicker."

In a more genteel era, Ms. Hauck's indelicate language might have seemed shocking, coming so matter-of-factly from the lips of a woman of her educational background (Queens College, Class of 1947), agreeable disposition and obvious propriety.

But it is just such sexist attitudes and stereotypes that Ms. Hauck and her colleagues in the reference department at Random House were striving to define, evade and vanquish with their college dictionary. The appendix has a section entitled "Avoiding Sexist Language," which advises users who want to skirt the gender trap to substitute "housekeeper" for "cleaning woman" and "bellhop" for "bellboy" and to refrain altogether from "girl" (for adult woman), "distaff" and "coed."

While receiving many good words in their efforts to be ecumenical, up to the minute and sexually demilitarized, Ms. Hauck and her fellow editors have also been publicly spanked for "sanctioning the jargon of special interest groups" (the New York Times) and "lending authority to scores of questionable usages" (Time).

Among the more questionable are those from one special interest group in particular, feminists, who were largely responsible for "womyn," "herstory," "waitron" and numerous other coinages that some purists find worse than obscene.

As a result of these and hundreds of other neologisms, buzz words and folk idioms -- "wannabe," "dollarization," "wuss," "malling" and "dumb down" among them -- the Random House has become widely, and unflatteringly, labeled the first "politically correct," or PC, dictionary.

It wasn't simply that the editors were the first to define the term ("adj. marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving esp. race, gender, sexual affinity or ecology") but that they betrayed an eagerness to assert their own political correctness.

Ms. Hauck insists otherwise, saying that critics and the media have "almost willfully misinterpreted and distorted" the sexier and more provocative aspects of the Random House college dictionary, while overlooking its "tremendous value" as an advisory reference to the permutations and nuances of the language.

"The idea that we're kowtowing to these special interest groups is absolutely incorrect," Ms. Hauck said, offering the editors' standard description of a dictionary as "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive" and explaining: "We're merely saying that certain words can be used or spelled in certain ways. We don't say they should be used or spelled that way, that you should throw out 'women' for 'womyn.' "

Like many dictionaries before it, the new Random House has also been flailed for its "ethnic incorrectness," detractors claiming that the inclusion of such epithets as "wop," "honky," and "nigger" automatically means they're being certified as legitimate synonyms.

"We have what is practically a form letter," Ms. Hauck reported, "saying that long ago we had to decide that it's better to put those words in the dictionary and unequivocally tell people they're offensive and derogatory, rather than make believe they don't exist."

A similar philosophy holds for such slightly less volatile words as "hopefully" (used as a "sentence modifier"), "finalize," "downsize" and "parameter" (for limit), among the dozens of others that turn up in the Random House college dictionary, with or without the blessings of the editors.

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