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Damnable Dictionaries



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From a reader:

Mr. Goldberg,

Interesting that the most common negative comeback to your book on the Amazon reviews is that it should be dismissed out of hand since a simple look at the dictionary should dismiss your thesis. Setting aside the idea that all we have to do is memorize a dictionary to get an education, a quick Google of “define: Fascist” brings up some interesting results. The first definition is, “an adherent of fascism or other right-wing authoritarian views”. This is, not surprisingly, from wordnet.Prineton.edu. Wiki on the other hand gives, “The word “fascist” ( or “fascism”) is sometimes used to denigrate people, institutions or groups that would not describe themselves as fascist and that do not fall within the formal definition of the word.”

I believe someone just wrote a whole book establising the premise that the definition of Fascism depends on who is doing the defining.

Heh, I’m glad someone brought this up. My late father (to whom the book is dedicated) held a lot of paper on dictionaries. After he retired he penned this piece for the Wall Street Journal. I think some readers will see his influence on me. An excerpt:

Castro is clearly not squeamish about using rhetoric straight out of the Marxist-Leninist handbook, or ruling Cuba the same way. And yet the imperialist bourgeoisie seems to be squeamish about labeling Castro for what he is. The latest edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary calls him merely: “Cuban revolutionary leader, prime minister and president.” Sounds rather impressive–you can almost see it on the résumé for a MacArthur genius award. But is Castro a dictator? Apparently not enough of one to define him as such.

This is not the only instance of labeling-hesitation in Webster’s New World–at least when the “leader” in question belongs to the “revolutionary” left. The dictionary can call Hitler the “Nazi dictator of Germany” but Stalin merely the “Soviet premier, general secretary of the Communist party of the U.S.S.R.” Mussolini is an “Italian dictator,” but Tito is “Yugoslav Communist Party leader, prime minister and president of Yugoslavia.” Franco is “dictator of Spain” and Salazar “prime minister and dictator of Portugal,” but Mao Tse-tung is “Chinese Communist leader, chairman of the People’s Republic of China and of its Communist Party.”

And Lenin? “Russian leader of the Communist revolution of 1917, premier of the U.S.S.R.” This seems especially unfair, since Lenin’s writings openly urged the deadly ruthlessness with which he ruled. Still, a good bourgeois dictionary must not go too far.

Read the whole thing. 



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