Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Low-Brow Lexicography

According to this article, there is a minor fracas over the possible addition of "wife beater" (in the sense of an armless undershirt) to the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently some people find the term offensive. The fracas is minor because the OED's mission is to document, not to dictate, word usage; the word "nigger" also appears in its pages, along with every other offensive term in the English language. I don't think anyone's seriously suggested that the OED's editors should exclude "wife beater" on grounds of political correctness.

But some critics do have a problem with the term itself, and their criticisms make little sense to me. NOW president Kim Gandy claims that using "wife beater" to refer to a garment "trivializes" domestic violence. I fail to see how. My sense is that people who use the term do so derogatorily; they intend to put down those who wear sleeveless undershirts as the kind of cretins who might beat their wives. Clearly, wife beating is seen as a bad thing.

Warren Farrell, a "men's advocate," has an even less comprehensible problem with the term: he says it's offensive to men because it excludes them. "We are so conscious of things like wife beating, but we are not conscious at all about husband beating. Domestic violence is equal opportunity. I wouldn't feel good about people wearing 'husband beaters' either." I don't get it - does Farrell think the term "wife beater" implies that husband beating doesn't occur? Besides, husband beating (and for that matter, anyone beating) is a serious matter, but I can't imagine it's anywhere near as common as wife beating. More common problems naturally get more attention.

And then there's the strange rejoinder of OED editor Jesse Sheidlower: "Apart from fashion writers writing about this, there's no evidence that this term is being used in an offensive way…. People who use this word are not using it to put anyone down." What? Of course they're using it put people down! In its origin, at least, the whole point was to say a person trashy enough to wear a shirt like that would probably beat his wife, too. The term "wife beater" is offensive and meant to be - but toward the beaters, not the wives.

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