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Redefining realness: Bringing queer performativity to the English dictionary

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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.

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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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Placed at the interface between metalexicography and gender studies, this short article discusses issues concerning gender representations in present-day dictionaries. Evoking recent controversies regarding the representation of gender-related terms such as “cisgender” or “woman” in The Oxford English Dictionary, the essay goes on to discuss the prescriptive/descriptive opposition concerning lexicographical representations, taking its cue from previous approaches, which suggest re-envisaging the prescriptive/descriptive dyad as a continuum (Straaijer, 2009; Wilton 2014), or replacing this traditional binary model with a nonbinary approach (Nossem, 2018; Turton, 2020).
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The way in which monolingual dictionaries, understood as a discourse formation in their own right, construct realities is regarded as a critical research focus in the broader frame of critical discourse studies. In order to widen research in this area and to cultivate a critical public attitude towards the authority of dictionaries in questions of meaning, a toolbox for critical lexicographic research has been developed. The topic chosen for analysis is the production and negotiation of racism in the context of colonialism in modern monolingual German, Danish, and Swedish dictionaries.
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There is a pervasive view, held by academics and educated laypeople alike, that the Oxford English Dictionary is a descriptive work. When plans for this great dictionary were first taking shape, the originators made their intentions very clear. Archbishop Trench, delivering the two lectures to the London Philological Society in 1857 which initiated the project, famously stated the axiom that the lexicographer ‘is a historian of [the language], not a critic’, while the Philological Society's Dictionary Committee announced to its members in a document of 1860 that their job was to list and describe words accurately and disinterestedly.
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Between 1998 and 2000, the House of Lords in the United Kingdom debated and rejected a Bill to equalise the age of sexual consent for gay men with the age of consent for heterosexual sex at sixteen years. A corpus-based keywords analysis of these debates uncovered the main lexical differences between oppositional stances, and helped to shed light on the ways that discourses of homosexuality were constructed by the Lords. In the debates the word homosexual was associated with acts, whereas gay was linked to identities. Those who argued in favour of law reform focused on a discourse of equality and tolerance, while those who were against law reform constructed homosexuality by accessing discourses linking it to danger, ill health, crime and unnatural behaviour. The discussion focuses on the ways that discourses can be constructed via chains of argumentation.
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This paper is concerned with the social mechanisms of linguistic change, and we begin by noting the distinction drawn by Bynon (1977) between two quite different approaches to the study of linguistic change. The first and more idealized, associated initially with traditional nineteenth century historical linguistics, involves the study of successive ‘states of the language’, states reconstructed by the application of comparative techniques to necessarily partial historical records. Generalizations (in the form of laws) about the relationships between these states may then be made, and more recently the specification of ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ processes of change has been seen as an important theoretical goal.
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