June 22, 2005

Protesting words

British potato farmers want 'couch potato' removed from the OED, according to The Times, the AP and others. Farmers, flacks and a celebrity chef demonstrated outside Parliament yesterday, in what may be the first such protest in the annals of lexicographic politics.

"The potato industry are fed up with the disservice that 'couch potato' does to our product when we have an inherently healthy product," said Kathryn Race, head of marketing at the British Potato Council, a body set up by the government to run advertising campaigns promoting potato consumption and research issues linked to the vegetable.

Ms. Race says that the BPC "[wrote] to the Oxford English Dictionary stating its objections but had not yet had a response." The AP reporter, Emily Rotberg, called the OED's chief editor, John Simpson, and got his response:

"Inclusion is based on currency of the term rather than on the basis of what people want us to put in the dictionary," he said. "When people blame words they are actually blaming the society that uses them."

This is great PR all around -- good for potatoes, good for dictionaries, good for the news outlets (153 of whom have picked this story up, according to Google News). Since the words for many farm animals, common crops and food products have uses with negative connotations, you'd think that the tactic ought to be widely imitated. However, it's not going to work out so well in other cases.

In the U.S., the National Cattleman's Beef Association may feel that it's uncattlemanly to whine about the negative connotations of cow, bull and cattle. For the National Corn Growers Association, corny may not rise above the level of annoyance. The National Chicken Council certainly has a beef with chicken in the sense of "coward", since fighting cocks are the epitome of suicidal courage, but cockfighting is illegal in the U.S. and is widely felt to be un-american as well. And there is no single U.S. dictionary that has the status of the OED in defining what counts as a word of English.

In contrast, there are many countries in continental Europe where there is an official Academy or similar body that is nominally entitled to legislate or adjudicate usage in the standard national language. And I suspect that it's a linguistic universal for farm animals, crops and food products to figure in terms of disdain and abuse. Still, I don't expect to see PR groups organizing demonstrations addressed to the Académie Française, the Institut für Deutsche Sprache, or the Svenska Språknämnden in order to petition for rectification of the negative connotations of particular food-industry-associated words.

What's special about "couch potato", of course, is the health angle. The goal of the British Potato Council was to feature the potato's role in a healthy lifestyle, countering the effects of carb-counting. As John Simpson put it, "I think the potato has taken a bit of a mashing after the Atkins diet." Still, I like the idea of a worldwide series of protests against the negative connotations of common animal and plant words.

[Update: Paul Bickert points out by email that

A few years ago, after a well-publicized epidemic of Salmonella poisonings, spokesmen for the salmon-processing industries tried to get the name of the bacterium changed to "Sanella". Unfortunately for them, the bug wasn't named after the fish but after the researcher who identified it, one Daniel Elmer Salmon; and the learned societies weren't about to deprive him of posthumous eponymic glory.

Also, Son1 at Quantum of Wantum points out that a number of cattle industry groups sued Oprah Winfrey a few years ago, over mad cow talk on her show. I don't think that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association actually sued her, but they weren't happy. This case, as I understand it, wound up being a test of the Texas "False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act". Although Oprah was vindicated by the courts on the grounds that "exaggeration does not equal defamation", along with some question about whether live cattle are perishable food or not, I believe that the statute is still on the books, so maybe the American equivalent of demonstrating in front of the Parliament building would be to sue for disparagement of potatoes.

Finally, Ben Zimmer reminded me that McDonalds tried to get Merriam-Webster to pull McJobs from the 11th Collegiate, but failed. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 22, 2005 07:00 AM