Thursday, July 24, 2008

An Unloaded Definition

Although I make use of the 1828 Webster's myself, and find it to be pretty valuable, there are times when it get things wrong thanks to changes in language.

So it is with its definition of "papist," which has recently been discussed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this meaning is no longer so neutral, even if it was in Webster's day (which I seriously doubt, but I am completely unqualified to properly investigate).

I've checked several dictionaries. Here's how they characterize the word:

  • "chiefly derogatory" (New Oxford American Dictionary - comes with any modern Mac computer)
  • "usually disparaging" (25-year-old Random House College Dictionary; first definition at
  • "offensive...disparaging" (second definition at previous link)
  • "offensive term for Roman Catholics" (fourth definition at previous link)
  • "offensive designation" (fifth definition at previous link; in fact, the only definition at that doesn't specify it as a disparaging or offensive term is an etymological one.)
  • "unfriendly" (30-year-old World Book Dictionary)
  • "usually hostile or opproprious" (OED 1971 edition)

In short - the surprise isn't and ought not to be that Catholics would be offended by the term; the surprise is that anyone would be mystified by their reaction to it.

The fact that some Catholics don't mind it, or even refer to themselves by the term, is completely irrelevant. Some members of the black community refer to themselves as "n-s" - but that doesn't excuse or justify that term's usage by others. Now of course I'll grant that "papist" isn't in the same class as the other term, but the principle is the same: if a word's offensive, it's offensive.

The claim to a "special definition" of the term doesn't hold any water, either. Suppose someone (and I assure you that this would not be me, since I have many close Protestant friends who are much brighter than I am) decided to use the word "idiots" to refer to Protestants on a regular basis, excusing his choice of words on the grounds that all he means by it is "Protestant"? Well, he'd be wrong, and he'd be offensive.

In short: special definitions don't remove the offensive meaning from offensive words. They should be avoided if one is serious about not giving offense.


No comments: