Unlawful Entries: Buggery, Sodomy, and the Construction of Sexual Normativity in Early English Dictionaries

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Feminist and postcolonial scholars have long contended that dictionaries, far from being objective linguistic records, are ideologically loaded texts that overtly or covertly encode sexist and ethnocentric attitudes (e.g. Rose 1979; Benson 2001). Queer linguists have also begun to explore how dictionaries reproduce heteronormativity and cisnormativity (Nossem 2018; Turton 2020), though much of this scholarship has so far limited itself to the construction of identity. This paper instead contributes to the recent queer turn towards embodiment by exploring representations of sexual acts in online general English dictionaries. It encourages greater engagement between queer lexicography and other strands of dictionary criticism by placing Rubin’s (1984) concept of the ‘charmed circle’ of sex in dialogue with Benson’s (2001) postcolonial model of the centre/periphery in lexicography. The paper argues that heteronormativity, cisnormativity and phallocentrism continue to shape contemporary definitions of sex and sexual intercourse by sidelining or silencing queer erotic acts and bodies.
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This article presents a short overview of the field of language and sexuality since the mid-1990s and discusses two issues that have repeatedly played a role in my own work in the field during the last decade: the incompatibility of the term homosexual with non-heteronormative language use, and the question of what counts as queer linguistic work.
This paper furthers the goal of “queering lexicography” ( Nossem 2018 ) by proposing a theoretical approach to analysing dictionary definitions that replaces the traditional descriptive/prescriptive binary with a model of normativity influenced by performativity theory. This is demonstrated by a critical discourse analysis of how entries for lesbian, gay , and homosexual in four contemporary English dictionaries tacitly position homosexual as a neutral term against which lesbian and gay are sociolinguistically marked. The paper also stresses the need for researchers not only to analyse how normativity is embedded in dictionaries, but to recognize the extent to which lay dictionary-users are already aware of the normative potential of lexicography, whether they embrace it or condemn it. This is explored through an incident in which Merriam-Webster’s addition of the word genderqueer to its online dictionary in 2016 became the subject of public scrutiny and contestation on social media.
The empirical advancements of scientific lexicography, on whose principles the Oxford English Dictionary was founded, paralleled the developments made in a range of other sciences in the nineteenth century. Rejecting the overt linguistic prescriptivism of many earlier lexicographers, the OED’s editors aimed to approach language as a natural system akin to any other; like their fellow scientists, they were concerned only with objective fact. Yet the representation of any human behaviour will necessarily be selective and subjective, and the conflicting evidence of real linguistic usage would complicate the lexicographers’ ideals of impassive collection and analysis. The better to cast this problem into relief, this paper juxtaposes scientific lexicography with another, more controversial nineteenth-century science: sexology. Sexologists’ pathologisation of ‘deviant’ sexual desires gave rise to an extensive new taxonomy, which the OED began documenting in the early decades of the twentieth century. Drawing on unpublished draft material from the dictionary’s archives, this paper examines the scientific ideologies of lexicography and sexology as they interacted in the OED, exploring what they reveal about the tension between scholarly principles and social practice.
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