A Tale of Two Dictionaries
It was all relative to Oxford Press, during the Cold War.


What was Oxford University Press, that most august of publishing houses, doing in the 1970s and ’80s, during the height of the Cold War? It may seem a question of no importance–unless you think the manipulation of the English language is an important matter.

The answer, it turns out, lies in a coffee house/used bookshop in downtown Bowling Green, Ohio. For it is there that I discovered, standing next to each other, these two books: the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, by A. S. Hornby (3rd edition; 7th impression, 1977) and the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of Current English: Special Edition for the USSR, by one A. S. Hornby (3rd revised and updated impression, 1981). Call them editions A and B.

Immediately I wondered whether there might be any difference between the two editions, so, sitting myself down with a large cup of tea and plenty of time on my hands, I discovered the following. According to A, Communism is “a political and social system (as in the USSR) in which all power is held by the highest members of the Communist Party, which controls the land and its resources, the means of production, transport, etc., and directs the activities of the people.” In B, it is a “theory revealing the historical necessity for the revolutionary replacement of capitalism by communism and the creation of a classless society.”

According to A, socialism is a “theory that land, transport, the chief industries . . . should be owned and managed by the State . . . and wealth equally distributed.” But for B, it is “the first phase of communism; social and economic system which is replacing capitalism, based on public ownership of the means of production and the abolishing of the exploitation of man by man.”

How about “capitalism”? Well, A says it is a “system in which a country’s trade and industry are organized and controlled by the owners of capital, the chief elements being competition, profit, supply and demand.” On the other hand, B says it is a “system based on the private ownership of the means of production operated for private profit, and on the exploitation of man by man.”

I was getting confused. How about “proletariat”? A and B are fairly similar here, except that B omits this example in A: “the dictatorship of the proletariat, as a Communist aim or ideal.” How about “totalitarian”? In A, it is a feature “of a system in which only one political party and no rival loyalties are permitted.” In B, it is a feature “of a system based on professed terroristic dictatorship by the most reactionary circles.”

“Let’s try ‘imperialism,’” thought I. In A: “Belief in the value of colonies; policy of extending a country’s empire and influence.” In B: “the highest and last stage of capitalism, beginning at the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century.” So, imperialism is linked to capitalism. But wait a minute: A says fascism is the “philosophy, principles and organization of the aggressive nationalist and anti-communist governmental system started in Italy in 1922 and dissolved in 1943.” But if B is right, it is a “form of reactionary, nationalistic, anti-democratic, anti-communist, bourgeois movement and system of government, typical of the era of imperialism.”

So if B is correct, imperialism is linked to capitalism and fascism. Maybe capitalism is linked to fascism? After all, B says fascism is a bourgeois movement, and according to B “bourgeois” is a “(person) of the capitalist class (that owns property or engages in trade).” The “capitalist” bit is missing from A, but perhaps A got it wrong? In which case imperialism is indeed linked to fascism through the bourgeoisie. Oh, dear, but that’s nearly all of us! And what about “nationalism”? Although A and B are very similar, B omits “strong devotion to one’s own nation.” It sounds like a noble sentiment, but if B is accurate it is no part of nationalism, and after all fascism is nationalistic.

My head was spinning, and I gave up with “democracy,” since A leads with “government in which all adult citizens share through their elected representatives,” whereas B starts off with “political system in which supreme power belongs to the people.” So that’s why they had all those People’s Republics? Moreover, A specifies “freedom of speech, religion, opinion and association,” but B omits all reference to these and merely speaks of “equality of citizens” rights”–whatever those rights may be, and they may well not include what is in A.

That’s acceptable, though, isn’t it? After all, some lexicographer at the Oxford University Press might insist that dictionaries only codify current usage, which varies from place to place. No room for truth, then, for real meaning: It’s all relative. If the Soviets wanted their people to believe capitalism=imperialism=fascism, then good for them. Who is OUP to stand in the way of national linguistic self-determination? Why should those poor Russians ever have been given something other than what their masters wanted them to have?

For all I know, OUP is not alone. Maybe all the publishers were at it during the Cold War, fiddling with concepts, manipulating people’s minds by tampering with language, taking the People’s Penny for the greater cause of linguistic enlightenment. As an academic, I can only see it as cause for shame. So would George Orwell, who in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” stated that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” I wonder, did A. S. Hornby read this before taking on the job of editing these two dictionaries?

David S. Oderberg is a professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, England, and was recently a visiting scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio.