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Crushing Of Dissent at Thesaurus.com

April 18th, 2008 - 12:31 pm

Long-time VodkaPundit readers will probably remember my buddy Lein Shory, or more likely Lein’s creation, the Irate Savant. For those who haven’t been around so long, the Savant blog was an experiment in blogging as a creative device–and a highly effective one. Based on the comments and emails Lein received, I’d guess at least half of his readership was convinced that the Savant was a real person.

Since wrapping up the blog in late 2005, Lein has been hard at work transforming the Savant’s story into a novel. I was fortunate enough to get to read an early draft, and I can say without prejudice that it is very likely to be considered the first landmark novel of the blog era–but that’s not the point right now.

As a quick glance back at the original Savant blog will tell you, Lein’s title character has a fondness for writing with a distinctly Buckley-esque vocabulary (don’t read any political content into that observation, as Lein and I occupy entirely different political hemispheres). In his seemingly-endless quest for additional obscure words with which to populate the Savant’s first-person prose, Lein has been using the popular Thesaurus.com site as a resource.

Then came last Monday. First, Thesaurus.com went down for a long stretch, and after it came back up, a remarkable number of words were gutted of synonym entries, and some were missing entries altogether. Nonplussed, Lein started to do a little Googling. Here’s what he found, as posted on April 9 at Jezebel:

An observant reader was pissed off enough at Thesaurus.com to tip us off to this, and we share her rage. If you search for synonyms for the word “weaker” two main entries come up: Female and lady.

Apparently the Jezebel post, as well as a similar rant at Feministing got the attention of Thesaurus.com’s corporate owner, Lexico. From a post on Lexico’s blog dated April 9, written by one Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD (whom I’m sorry to say is the editor and compiler of Roget’s New Millennium Thesaurus):

The synonym “weaker sex” appears in many thesauruses for terms like woman, lady, and female. It is considered an informal, possibly derogatory, synonym for those words. Due to the way our search technology works, a search for weaker appeared to suggest that it was a synonym for female and lady. This was incorrect and has been fixed.

We take your concerns about language and society seriously (this is, after all, our business) and after reading feedback on the entries for female and lady, we carefully reviewed our editorial decisions. In light of how our customers use Thesaurus.com on a daily basis, we chose to remove “weaker sex” as a informal/slang synonym from our site. The entries now describe current American English usage more accurately and we feel we’re providing more helpful suggestions for those seeking guidance on word choice from us.

A quick look at Thesaurus.com indicates that Dr. Kipfer did a lot more than just fix an ‘incorrect’ link in Lexico’s database. There’s a screen shot of the previous “weaker” entry at the Jezebel link above, and you’ll have to go there to see it for yourself, because if you go to Thesaurus.com today and enter in the word “weaker,” you get… nothing.

No entries at all. No synonyms, no antonyms, no Tiny Tims. There’s nothing at all listed under the word, except a query as to whether you’ve misspelled it (and you haven’t).

As Eddie Murphy once said in an entirely different context, “Well, that’s peculiar.” Let’s look around for a few other words, eh? How about… malefactor. Only three synonyms are listed today, and no other useful information, but if one goes looking in Google’s cache for the same word, one finds a multitude of options that have now vanished into the ether(net).

How about a few more? Try comparing today’s Thesaurus.com entry for, say, omnipotent (there’s nothing there, the word isn’t even recognized) to the Google cache version, where there’s a whole page full of stuff. You can see similar rather astonishing edits for reprobate (cached version here), inamorata (cached version here) and inimitable (cached version here).

So, what’s going on here?

I’m hesitant to jump right out and call this an outright Ministry Of Truth descent into Newspeak. Relational databases are very tricky beasts, and I’m perfectly willing to believe that Dr. Kipfer and/or her minions simply made mistakes in correcting word links within Thesaurus.com’s internal systems while they were ‘cleaning up’ this business of the “weaker sex.” I certainly hope that’s the case, as I really don’t want to live in a world where the editor of today’s Roget’s Thesaurus is in the business of sanitizing the language in the name of pacifying pressure groups.

With that understood, even if the intentional part of Thesaurus.com’s “cleanup” were limited to the “weaker” and “female” connection, this is still troubling stuff. I’d personally have no problem if references to “the weaker sex” were tagged as archaic (which is certainly true) or even “offensive,” which is also obviously the case to most modern eyes. I do have a problem with people who are supposed to be caretakers of our linguistic heritage taking it upon themselves to write words and definitions out of the English language.

Looking at the missing words above, it looks to my eyes like most references to male or female characteristics of those words have been hacked out (along with many other references that presumably were lost in the database shuffle along the way). I should note here that Thesaurus.com has not bothered to make such changes that would affect other political points of view (check out the current entry for “unprogressive,” if you doubt me), but hey, I don’t want them to go editing those entries, either! I just want my language back.

UPDATE: Curiouser and curiouser. As commenter Scott discovered, the source of the pre-April 14 cached links is Roget’s New Millennium Thesaurus (of which the aforementioned Dr. Kipfer says she is the editor), while the current links (at least those that link to anything at all) are referenced to “Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus.”

(I am compelled to wonder if Wesley Crusher is a contributor to the latter, but never mind that.)

So, what’s the deal here? Lacking any actual announcement from Lexico, is this all due to a switch in databases? And if so, why? The “Roget’s II” appears to be singularly lacking compared to the previous version… could Lexico just be trying to move users to the pay-per-view version?

Inquiring minds want to know, but either way, I thank Scott for his detective work.

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