November 23, 2006

A Lawsuit over a Dictionary Entry

Back in October on a radio show pundit Norman Spector, former chief of staff to Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney referred to Liberal Member of Parliament Belinda Stronach, a former Conservative who crossed the floor a year ago, as a bitch (audio here; text here). This caused a bit of a furor. Spector defended his use of the word by saying that he had used the term correctly in the sense of "a treacherous or malicious woman", for which he relied on the Oxford English Dictionary.

In her column of November 18th, Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham wrote:

the former adviser and confidante to both a prime minister and a premier sanctimoniously tried to bluster his way out of it, claiming that he was using an arcane definition from the Oxford Dictionary meaning treacherous behaviour. I've not been able to find it in any of the versions of Oxford I've consulted.

Spector is now suing Bramham along with the owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Sun for libel. Whether he will win is unclear for a number of reasons, including the fact that Bramham never explicitly said that Spector made up the definition but only suggested it by innuendo, but the facts at least are on Spector's side. In the online version of the OED after sense 1a "female of the dog" and 1b "female of the fox, wolf and occasionally of other beasts", we read:

2. a. Applied opprobriously to a woman; strictly, a lewd or sensual woman. Not now in decent use; but formerly common in literature. In mod. use, esp. a malicious or treacherous woman; of things: something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant.

Nor do I see that there is anything arcane about this sense. I'd say that it describes pretty well what the word means to me. The sense that I would call arcane is 2c "A primitive form of lamp used in Alaska and Canada", with which I was unfamiliar.

The really funny thing here is that they are fighting about whether Spector's use of the term was semantically correct when you'd think that the issue would be whether it was chivalrous.

Posted by Bill Poser at November 23, 2006 04:08 AM