Another skirmish in the Dictionary Wars

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A press release from the U.S. Atorney's Office, District of Massachusetts — "California Man Pleads Guilty to Threatening Merriam-Webster with Anti-LGBTQ Violence", 9/14/2022:

A California man pleaded guilty on Sept. 8, 2022 in federal court in Springfield, Mass. to making threats to commit anti-LGBTQ violence against Springfield-based Merriam-Webster, Inc. and others.

Jeremy David Hanson, 34, of Rossmoor, Calif., pleaded guilty to one count of interstate communication of threatening communications to commit violence against the employees of Merriam-Webster, and to another count charging the same offense, initially filed in the Eastern District of Texas, targeting the President of the University of North Texas. In a written statement of facts accompanying his plea agreement, Hanson also admitted to sending threatening communications to various corporations, politicians, and others, including the Walt Disney Co., the Governor of California and the Mayor of New York City, a New York rabbi and professors at Loyola Marymount University. Hanson also admitted that he frequently selected the object of his threatening communications because of the gender, gender identity and/or sexual orientation of various persons.

The lexicographical part of Hanson's ire was directed against online M-W entries relating to sex and gender, including girlfemale, and gender identity.

Specifically, on Oct. 2, 2021, Hanson used the handle “@anonYmous” to post the following comment on the dictionary’s website definition of “female:” “It is absolutely sickening that Merriam-Webster now tells blatant lies and promotes anti-science propaganda. There is no such thing as ‘gender identity.’ The imbecile who wrote this entry should be hunted down and shot.”

Hanson also sent the following threatening message via the website’s “Contact Us” page: “You [sic] headquarters should be shot up and bombed. It is sickening that you have caved to the cultural Marxist, anti-science tranny [sic] agenda and altered the definition of ‘female’ as part of the Left’s efforts to corrupt and degrade the English language and deny reality. You evil Marxists should all be killed. It would be poetic justice to have someone storm your offices and shoot up the place, leaving none of you commies alive.”

On Oct. 8, 2021, Hanson posted another threatening comment on the dictionary’s website and a threatening message via the “Contact Us” page that read: “I am going to shoot up and bomb your offices for lying and creating fake definitions in order to pander to the tranny mafia. Boys aren’t girls, and girls aren’t boys. The only good Marxist is a dead Marxist. I will assassinate your top editor. You sickening, vile tranny freaks.” As a result of the threats, Merriam-Webster closed its offices in Springfield, Mass. and New York City for approximately five business days.

Hanson's sentencing is scheduled for 1/3/2023.

As far as I know, this is the first time that lexicographical choices have motivated threats of bombings and assassinations. But there's a long history of acrimonious controversy over dictionaries bearing Noah Webster's name, involving many socio-cultural and political dimensions.

We can start with the reaction to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961. As a sample of the reactions, Rex Stout's 1962 novel Gambit opens with detective Nero Wolfe systematically burning a copy. Here's how the book starts:

At twenty-seven minutes past eleven that Monday morning in February, Lincoln’s Birthday, I opened the door between the office and the front room, entered, shut the door, and said, “Miss Blount is here.”

Without turning his head Wolfe let out a growl, yanked out some more pages and dropped them on the fire, and demanded, “Who is Miss Blount?”

I tightened my lips and then parted them to say, “She is the daughter of Matthew Blount, president of the Blount Textile Corporation, who is in the coop charged with murder, and she has an appointment with you at eleven-thirty, as you know. If you’re pretending you’ve forgotten, nuts. You knew you couldn’t finish that operation in half an hour. Besides, how about the comments I have heard you make about book burners?”

“They are not relevant to this.” He yanked out more pages. “I am a man, not a government or a committee of censors. Having paid forty-seven dollars and fifty cents for this book, and having examined it and found it subversive and intolerably offensive, I am destroying it.” He dropped the pages on the fire. “I’m in no mood to listen to a woman. Ask her to come after lunch.”

“I have also heard you comment about people who dodge appointments they have made.”

Pause. More pages. Then: “Very well. Bring her here.”

I returned to the office, shutting the door, crossed to the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk where I had seated the caller, and faced her. She tilted her head back to look up at me. She was a brownie, not meaning a Girl Scout — small ears and a small nose, big brown eyes, a lot of brown hair, and a wide mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down.

“I’d better explain,” I told her. “Mr. Wolfe is in the middle of a fit. It’s complicated. There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the—I beg your pardon. I describe the situation at length because he told me to bring you in there, and it will be bad. Even if he hears what you say, his mental processes are stultified. Could you come back later? After lunch he may be human.”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

“Right. That’s nothing. Once he burned up a cookbook because it said to remove the hide from a ham end before putting it in the pot with lima beans. Which he loves most, food or words, is a tossup.”

For an extensive and scholarly discussion of the dictionary's background and reception, see James Sledd and Wilma Ebbitt, Dictionaries and That Dictionary, 1962. Quoting from the Preface:

The exercises and selections in Part One provide an introduction to the history, nature, and purposes of the English dictionary. Seven eminent lexicographers of the last two centuries are represented, […]. Part Two provides the data for reconstructing a single striking episode in the history of English lexicography, the debate that followed the publication of Webster's Third New International. The chronologically ordered readings cover the period from September 1961, to May 1962.

For a longer-time survey of reactions, see Herbert Morton, The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics, 1994. The publisher's blurb:

The publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 set off a storm of intense controversy in both the popular press and in scholarly journals due to widespread disagreements about the nature of language and the role of the dictionary. This is the first full account of the controversy, set within the larger background of how the dictionary was planned and put together by its editor-in-chief, Philip Babcock Gove. Based on original research and interviews with the people who knew and worked with Gove, this is a human story as well as the story of the making of a dictionary. The author skillfully interweaves an account of Gove's character and working habits with the evolution of the dictionary. In spite of its rocky initial reception, Webster's Third is now widely regarded as one of the greatest dictionaries of our time.

And for what I consider the best and most entertaining survey of the whole Webster's-Third episode, see David Skinner, The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever, 2012 — previously described and recommended in "The story of Ain't" (9/19/2013).

But American dictionary fights started in the early 19th century — see Peter Martin, The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language, 2019. The Preface starts this way:

This book is about the turbulent birth pangs of the American language and the American dictionary. The word wars in its title spotlights the militancy that characterized the development of the English language in America, the contests for dictionary supremacy between American lexicographers in the nineteenth century, and the keen international rivalry between Britain and America that soiled relations between the two countries regarding the use of the English language during the early years of American nationhood.

The dictionary battlefields in these “wars” were mainly in the United States, where after the American Revolution, the English language was fought over with bitterness scarcely imaginable or understood in Britain. These wars not only pitted lexicographers against each other but also drew into the conflict America’s earliest internationally known authors, its first colleges, state legislatures, newspapers, publishers, libraries, and individual citizens all over the rapidly expanding nation. It was a civil war over words that illuminates America’s search to identify and know itself. It was about a defining hunger for knowledge of the language and how to use it, about English linguistic heritage and domination and the way that Americans, restless to come out from its shadows, dealt with it. It was also a war between American reformers versus American traditionalists, between the growth of populist democracy and the defenders of traditional values and manners associated with elegance and refinement. It is also about the private war that America’s dictionary idol, Noah Webster, waged with himself, arguing himself in and out of self-confidence, attacking people in a way that he knew would be damaging to himself, constantly feeling insecure about his vocation and role in the new nation. America’s progress and struggle with the English language, mediated by the country’s ongoing dictionary controversies, amounts to a conflicting, acrimonious heritage that helps account for what America is today.

As evidence for the cultural salience of these "wars", here's an 1860 Vanity Fair cartoon:

And for a bit more on how and why lexicographical and grammatical choices might variously interact with political dimensions, see "Innovation, rules, and regulation" (12/28/2012), and "Querkopf von Klubstick returns" (6/10/2008), among others…

Update — some information about Hanson's non-lexicographic threats and other internet actions can be found here, here, and here.




  1. Dwight Williams said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 9:36 am

    Hanson deserves our disrespect.

    I wonder if Orwell expected this too in some way…?

  2. Stephen Hart said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 10:47 am

    I wonder why [sic] in one case but not the other two:

    anti-science tranny [sic]
    the tranny mafia
    vile tranny freaks

  3. Jerry Packard said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    ‘Tranny’ was slang for ‘transmission’ (automobile) in the days of my youth.

  4. M. said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 12:30 pm

    As a sidelight:

    Certain Christrian groups in the United States now use no English dictionary other than Noah Webster's of 1828. For their reasons, see for example here:

  5. Dwight Williams said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 2:58 pm

    Well, now, the word is used to disrespect transgendered people. With cruelty aforethought.

  6. John Swindle said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 8:17 pm

    @Stephen Hart: The first [sic] would have been to show that the U.S. Attorney's office was quoting exactly and not misspelling "tyranny".

  7. Arthur Baker said,

    September 18, 2022 @ 8:42 pm

    Seems like only yesterday (but it wasn't) that my tranny was my small portable radio.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    September 19, 2022 @ 8:47 am

    "the word ['tranny'] is used to disrespect transgendered people. With cruelty aforethought" — never encountered it in that context, but it is certainly in my idiolect as a pejorative term for a transvestite.

  9. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    September 19, 2022 @ 10:35 am

    Philip Taylor, how does one have a perjorative term in one’s idiolect without encountering that term as disrespectful and cruel?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    September 19, 2022 @ 11:19 am

    Transvestite, Michèle, not trans-gender.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 20, 2022 @ 5:50 pm

    In addition to the various items myl linked at the end of the original post, here's a link to Mr. Hanson's plea agreement, which has appended to it a statement of facts which includes a few incidents not recounted in the original FBI affidavit, such as a threat to the Entomological Society of America, at whom he was apparently mad because they were purporting to change the common name of the gypsy moth. (Which strikes me as perhaps an act of hubris on the ESA's part, separate and apart from whatever one might think of its merits. Let specialized scientific organizations fight about the proper Linnean nomenclature for a given species if they wish, but common names used by ordinary speakers of the English language are not the property of specialists or scientists.)

  12. Terpomo said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 5:59 pm

    I think the sort of person who uses the term pejoratively tends to be a little vague on the distinction between transgender and transvestite anyway.

  13. wanda said,

    September 24, 2022 @ 3:19 pm

    I think that sort of benighted person believes that transgender people don't exist, so they think there is no difference between transvestites and transgender people.

  14. Terpomo said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 9:09 pm

    By that do you mean that they think that no one is metaphysically of a gender not corresponding to their birth sex, or that they think there is no one who is distressed by their birth sex and wish to change it? I can believe the former exist (with difficulty, since the question barely computes in my worldview; that is, I think the concept of ANYONE being 'really a man' or 'really a woman' barely makes sense in the first place, as categories are a feature of the map, not the territory) but the latter would have to be actively delusional or living under a rock. Unless they think that such people are all lying for clout somehow?

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