First of all I need to say that I am a big fan of lexicography, I find it to be a fascinating art/science, and generally speaking if you are in a semantic argument with a lexicographer then you better bring your A-game.
In case you don’t know, lexicography is the art or craft of writing or compiling definitions for a dictionary. At least that’s what it said in some random online dictionary I just looked it up in, so it must be.
Obviously, a modern day lexicographer would more regularly review, update or edit a definition for a word rather than write definitions for all the words in a dictionary as most words would have still functioning definitions written long before they took the job.
Even so, when a lexicographer speaks about word meanings or language use, most lay people would feel safe in taking them at face value. It’s only if you have some specialist or personal knowledge of the issue being discussed that you may raise an eyebrow, or attempt to offer a clarification or objection.
However, when the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Susan Butler, wrote an article for The Drum titled “By saying ‘Negro’, Eric Abetz has revealed the complications of taboo’, my eyebrows weren’t merely raised, they nearly jumped off my head in their desire to march towards the Macquarie Dictionary offices and hold a silent furrowed protest out the front.
In her article she wrote ‘If you are a boong you can refer to another Aborigine as a boong’.
No, honestly, she did… she actually wrote that.
I find the use of the outdated term ‘Aborigines’ in modern media articles to be frustrating enough, so you can imagine my surprise to see that not only was the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary calling me a ‘boong’, but she was even giving me permission to call other Aboriginal people ‘boongs’ too… ummm, thanks but no thanks, Susan.
The key problems with this are pretty obvious, but there are also many layers to it, and since I’m pretty pissed off at the moment I will try to take a few deep breaths and go through just a few of them.
Firstly, she actually called us all ‘boongs’.
While I would have vehemently disagreed with her anyway if she had have written ‘Aboriginal English allows for Aboriginal people to refer to each other as a ‘boong’’ or some similar variant, I take particular exception of her choice to actually use the slur herself while acknowledging it is ‘taboo’ in Australian English – “If you are a boong…”. I don’t care who says it, even if they themselves are Aboriginal, I don’t take kindly to being called a ‘boong’, or an ‘Abo’, or any other racist piece of shit term, in any context.
The fact that The Drum thought it suitably sensational to deserve being published is also a huge concern.
Secondly, the Macquarie Dictionary agrees with her.
noun Colloquial (derogatory) (racist)
1. An Aboriginal person
2. NZ a Maori or Pacific Islander.
3. any black person
4. Rare an indigenous person of some other countries, as PNG, Malaysia.
[Australian Aboriginal; Wemba Wemba beng man, human being]
Usage: This word is generally racist and derogatory but can be used in Aboriginal English without being offensive.
At least in the Macquarie it says ‘can’ which can be taken in the context of ‘may’, but perhaps would have been more accurate if it had continued to say ‘it can also get you in to a shit tonne of trouble so you should probably know who you’re saying it to before you just jump on in with it.’
But I digress…
The problem is not just that she intentionally offended many Indigenous people by choosing to phrase her misgiving in a way that actually labelled us as ‘boongs’, though that in itself is problem enough. It is that many of the non-Indigenous people reading that article will take that as a gospel truth, because the dictionary is an unquestionable book of truths, and media is seen by many to be on a comparable level (‘You couldn’t say it on the news if it wasn’t true’). So now there are who knows how many white people out there complaining to each other and to random Aboriginal people “… but Aboriginal people get to call each other ‘boongs’ so why can’t I?!”
I don’t know if this is just an outdated assumption, or a presumption made from American examples, or perhaps they just saw the 1970’s Basically Black ‘Superboong’ sketch and assumed it’s okay… either way, most mob I know wouldn’t take too kindly to being called it by anyone, and wouldn’t call anyone else it either, so I would suggest that a new definition be drafted asap, and perhaps a new editor be brought on board if this is the sort of crap that they print. Same goes for The Drum, who quite frankly should’ve known better, and considering what I presume is written in their Style Guide about the use of racial slurs, should’ve recognised that in the context it was written, “If you are a boong”, it was inappropriate and offensive usage unfit for print.
The roles and responsibilities of an editor, either for a dictionary or for a media outlet, are ones that should not be so carelessly and recklessly abondoned for the cheap thrill of being able to use a racial slur in what was wrongly presumed to be a ‘safe’ context. Seriously disappointed, and very pissed off… so please, ABC editors, and Susan Butler, I ask of you, please don’t ever call me a boong again.
That is a request I am amazed I even need to ask in 2015, but it is what it is.
NB: I prefer the idea of lexicography espoused by Erin McKean in her wonderful TED talk, ‘The Joy of Lexicography’, which I recommend you all, and particularly Susan Butler, watch.
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