Debatable definitions - Monocolumn | Monocle


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27 November 2013

Just days ago, the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” its word of 2013. The term - defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website" – is, in my humble opinion, far from being an exciting development for Shakespeare’s tongue.

But a much more interesting lexical revolution is happening a little south of the British Isles in Spain. The Royal Spanish Academy has big plans for the 23rd edition of its dictionary. And they don’t involve coining internet neologisms as part of the Iberian dialect. In short, the institution has decided Spaniards should quit speaking in a macho tongue.

At this point you may be wondering how a language could possibly be sexist. It’s simple, really: until now the official dictionary of Spanish language has defined the word feminine as “feeble or unstable” whereas masculine means “mannish and energetic”. An orphan is a “person of young age who has lost both parents, or just one [but] especially the father”. The verb gozar, which translates – admittedly, rather poorly - as “enjoying something”, is described as “knowing a woman in the flesh”. One of the meanings of babosear or “drooling over” is “spoiling a woman excessively”. The list goes on.

It’s baffling to think that those outdated definitions have survived through 22 editions of the same book. The venerable academy of words in charge of updating it seems to have been taking a pretty long siesta into the 21st century. And yet the Real Academia doesn’t apologise. The upcoming changes are merely a correction, not a conscious effort to be a little gentler with what the dictionary continues to refer to, on one page at least, as “the weaker sex”.

“If society is macho then our dictionary will reflect it,” said the academy’s director, Pedro Álvarez de Miranda. It’s a shame. Words have the power to change the way a society thinks and speaks of itself. Adding “selfie” to a country’s official lexicon may not matter a huge amount but forcing a group of people to define themselves in a more respectful way can and will make a difference. Fourteen words will be updated in next year’s dictionary. Here’s hoping Spain, and its royal word-makers, continue to embrace the trend.

Daphnée Denis is an associate producer for Monocle 24.


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