Apple came under fire last week when a Massachusetts teen discovered that their dictionary app gave the definition “foolish, stupid, unimpressive” for the word “gay.” The 15-year-old Becca Gorman, who had looked up the word while doing research for a paper on gay rights, was surprised that this definition was listed as “informal,” but that the dictionary seemed to provide no indication that the usage of the word in this context was derogatory.
Gorman wrote an e-mail to Apple CEO Tim Cook, which said, in part:
I assume that you are a pro-gay company, and would never intend for any one of your products to be as offensive as this definition was. Even with your addition of the word informal, this definition normalizes the terrible derogatory twist that many people put on the word “gay.” … When I look at this definition it makes this hatred filled use of the term as something as okay as “dude.”
I am asking for you to remove this definition from the Dictionary you are promoting, or to make a significant change to it. I also think it would be a good idea to apologize to the gay community, a good amount of your customers. Thank you for your cooperation, I love your products.
Apple, which lobbied against California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 and has for some time provided same-sex couples benefits, responded immediately. An hour after Gorman sent the message, an Apple representative called to tell her that the company only licenses dictionaries and that they have a hard time tracking their sources, but that they, too, were shocked to find this definition.. They assured the teen they’d look into the issue.
Gorman isn’t satisfied, having seen no change. “I feel like we’re going to have to make a bigger deal about it before they actually act on it,” she told the MetroWest Daily News.
People and news outlets querying the Apple dictionary app soon discovered that not all versions of the app provide the same result. NBC News checked several Macs and found only some listed the definition seen by Gorman, while others did show the informal usage of the word “gay” as offensive. The DailyDot, meanwhile, didn’t see the informal definition at all.
Apple licenses the New Oxford American Dictionary for its dictionary app in its operating systems OS X and iOS here in the United States.
The web version of the New Oxford American Dictionary offers the following definitions for the word “gay”:
It is unclear which versions of the Apple dictionary app have which definitions or why these so widely vary. It’s possible that updates made to the New Oxford American Dictionary are not translating to the Apple dictionary app on its computers. NBC indicates that OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 are up-to-date on the definition, with both labeling the term offensive.
Over on Queerty, Matt Baume has a thought-provoking response to people who would see that part of the definition removed altogether:
The purpose of a dictionary is not to command or correct our language. It’s to observe and report the way that we use words. And that’s how some people (bad people, people with unexamined prejudice) use the word “gay.” It hurts, and the dictionary is doing its job by documenting that. A dictionary isn’t like the president of the language, with the authority to make judgments and issue commandments about how we are or aren’t supposed to change how we talk. It’s an anthropologist, studying our language and maintaining a record of what we mean.
[…] some people use offensive words to hurt other people, which is terrible. It’s those terrible people who are the problem, not the dictionary for noticing them. Erasing evidence of the problem doesn’t solve anything. What do we gain by denying that anyone who says “gay” means to say “stupid”? Or that no one has ever been called “wetback”? […] Yeah, it sucks to see “stupid” as a synonym for what you are. But to take away those offensive definitions is to deny that we were ever the victims of them.
I think that’s an important point, though I am very much in favor of Apple ensuring its dictionaries list this usage of “gay” not just as informal but as pejorative.
Header contains a photo by Guillaume Paumier.