Thursday, August 6, 2015

Should Merriam Webster Online Dictionary change their definition of Heathen?

Today in one of the many Facebook groups that I am in, someone shared a link to a petition demanding that Merriam Webster Online Dictionary change their definition of Heathen.

The petition demanding Webster change the definition of the word Heathen. 
So how bad is Webster's definition of Heathen?

First part of the Webster's definition. 
The first part is ok (I guess), and the second part is traditional. Many writers insisted that Heathens were uncivilized.

I just happen to know a worse definition of Heathen (from the 1982 edition of the Random House College Dictionary): "an unenlightened or barbaric idolater."

Oh look, the defintion of Heathen goes back to the 12th century. 
These "insulting" definitions have been in play for a long time. At one point, the term Heathen also applied to the Muslims. Today, it is more or less, everyone who is not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. I guess that someone decided that the Muslims are civilized.

Definition by rejection of the Bible.
One of the complaints of the petition is that the definition is based on "rejection of the God of the Bible," a god that Jews, Christians, and Muslims share...uncomfortably, but it is the same baseline god if you follow the lines of transmission and origins of these three religions. They argue that Christianity (and the rejection of) should not be in the definition....which ignores why dictionaries get used in the first place--when using a dictionary, you want them to tell you the most likely ways that a word is being used (not some idealized seldom encountered in real life definition).

But look, it is a Christian definition of Heathen.
The synoyms include Pagan which is also defined by its rejection of the god of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran.

The definition of Heathen for kids. 
Yes kids, Heathens are uncivilized; Christian writers have been saying that for centuries. And writers do use the term to describe people who have no civilizations or wildly different ones.

Webster would like to know why you are looking up the word Heathen.
Can we at least agree that Webster asking why you are interested in the word Heathen is at least an attempt by them to stay current with its modern usage?

The two things that are to be included in the new definition of Heathen.
Gythja Dearbhla actually says in the petition that not only does they want the reference to the Bible removed, along with the insulting "uncivilized" definition, but they also want the definition to be "a convert of the Aesir and Vanir [ancient gods of the Norse religion]" and "a Norse polytheist."

(By the way, one of my favorite definitions of Cat is actually a definition by what it is not: Cat--not a dog.)

Here is your laugh out loud moment of the day. 
The best comment (for its humor value) was someone saying that "I agree whole heartedly with this action. I do believe the wording needs the approval of a heathen majority."

I presume that Scott Mattis means ONLY Norse pagans are to be consulted.

And this is where I have to ask, "Can you even get a dozen Heathens to agree what type of light bulbs to buy?" And what about all the non-Norse Heathens? Why don't they also get a vote?

As a writer and a scholar, let me be the one to break the bad news to you. Dictionaries reflect how writers actually use words, not how you think the words should be defined by your own particular religion. If religions were allowed to pick the definitions of words, we would get stuck with the following definition of Heathen (buckle in):

Heathen: an ignorant uncivilized person who absolutely is going to Hell for refusing to accept the one true God of the Bible.

And why would we be stuck with that definition? Simply because there are far more Christians than pagans and heathens in English speaking counties, both in the present and in the past. The definitions that Webster and Random House are using are not nearly as bad as the ones that we would get if a committee got to define the word to their satisfaction.

So how do we get the definition changed? Well, a petition is useless. What changes the definition of the word are writers using it in a different manner than it was previously used. So instead of signing a petition, go to Webster Online Dictionary and tell them about instances that Heathen (and for that matter Pagan) are being used in a modern sense of "someone civilized who believes in gods other than the Jewish Christian Muslim god." If enough people do this, they will add a new section to the definition reflecting its new use. Why? Because that is how dictionaries actually define words--by how people are actually using them.

(Please note that the current definitions will remain simply because there is a few centuries of usage that says that all heathens need to be saved by the civilizing force of the one true God. Also note that I am a Heathen and Pagan...not that it will stop you from calling me bad names in the comment section.)

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