Dictionaries Change Even Slower Than Church
White, Michele, National Catholic Reporter
During Advent last year, my twin called. She was fishing for gift ideas. I told her what I'd told her many times before, that I'd always wanted a dictionary from my twin the writer. I could hear her eyes roll.
Nevertheless, last year, under the Christmas tree with a card declaring, "Ya get what ya ask for" was a 1998 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. The dictionary was labeled as "celebrating a century of new words." It had added euro, feng shui, right-size, search engine, URL this past year.
I used my new dictionary without much thought until I looked up laity. To my surprise, I found that layman is "a person who is not a member of the clergy" while a lay-woman is "a member of the laity." I thought, "That's odd." It seemed to me that the definitions should be consistent.
On my way to another word that same day, my eye caught the picture of a cassock. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition and found that cassocks are "worn by clergy and laymen."
Now, my curiosity went into overdrive. I looked up altar server. I could only find altar boy. Altar girl and altar server were not defined. I was incredulous. Imagine a proud little girl not finding her church ministry in the dictionary!
On a roll, I thought up more Catholic words to look up. I noticed that, like the definitions of layman and laywoman, the definitions of brother and sister were also not consistent, and neither were monk and nun. Brothers were essentially defined as "not priests," which I found very unfair to their ministries.
I was most distressed, however, by Merriam-Webster's definition of Eucharist. It defined Eucharist as synonymous with Communion, which it is not. As we lose priests, some Catholics have been confused by the distinction between Communion services and the Eucharist. Merriam-Webster's would not enlighten them. I couldn't let this pass.
The back of the dictionary listed Merriam-Webster's Web site. From there, I got a general e-mail address and sent an e-mail titled "M-W's Collegiate Dictionary -- 10th edition" into the Merriam-Webster's corporate cyberspace. The next day I received a reply from James G. Lowe, senior editor.
In our ensuing flurry of e-mail exchanges, I was heartened by Lowe's receptivity. He agreed that the definitions needed to be updated: that altar girl should be added and that feminine and masculine versions of definitions should be consistent. He did a word search to uncover all the uses of clergyman (40) and layman (9) that needed to be changed within the definitions of other words. As we continued our dialogue, he decided to assign a single editor to review all the poorly defined Catholic words that I had brought to his attention.
As I think about this experience, Margaret Mead comes to mind: "Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world, indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. …