Dictionary gets the last word

They banned the dictionary for a few days last week in Riverside, Calif.

When a parent complained that the definition for “oral sex” was “sexually graphic” and not fit for young readers, the Menifee Union School District pulled its copies of Merriam-Webster’s 10th edition from school shelves.

The event got a smattering of notice around the country and in certain censorship circles. Though it should be said, some pundits were more shocked that kids still look up words in dictionaries than they were about the content of the oral sex definition: “n. oral stimulation of the genitals.”

In the media coverage, I keep waiting for the smartass man-on-the-street quote from some guy: “What is this oral sex thing of which you speak?” It never came. Guess we’ll have to wait for The Onion’s report.

Clearly the offended parent wants his or her child to learn about sex the old-fashioned way. On the school bus. If they think the dictionary definition is graphic, let them enter “oral sex” on a Google search and see what turns up.

I’m reminded of Frank McCourt’s recollection of the day he was thrown out of the library, for good, in Limerick, for looking up the word “turgid,” after seeing it in a sexually suggestive passage he’d happened upon in a book by Lin Yutang.

Merriam-Webster’s is the official dictionary of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, and of Scrabble. But it spent six days locked in the closets in this California school district until school officials relented. A review by school administrators and the board — amid mounting pressure from first-amendment groups — led officials to reinstate the dictionaries.

A compromise was reached. A less explicit dictionary will also be made available in the district’s fourth-and fifth-grade classrooms (the ones in question), and parents will have to sign a letter stating which they want their children to use.

So now you need a permission slip to look up something in the dictionary. But not to watch cable TV.

I was in high school when Huckleberry Finn was under attack in our school district. While literary types are still mourning the death of the great J.D. Salinger, it’s worth noting that his The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most banned books of the past 50 years in this country.

The hot title under attack now is a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who bond over the experience of caring for an egg together. Religious groups complain that the book promotes homosexuality by showing two males caring for an egg. It’s not natural, they say. Except in this case, it is. Male penguins do, in fact, exhibit such behavior, and the ones in this book are based on two actual penguins from the Central Park Zoo in New York.

Sometimes, I’m surprised that some religious types don’t ban their own Good Book. Certainly, there are a great many parts of that book that would earn their own R-rating, or worse. (Of course, it’s a book that has endured more than its share of banning, too, over the ages).

So the dictionary lives on in Riverside. And Anne Frank, too, will stay on the shelves in Culpepper, Va., schools, after The Diary of Anne Frank was removed last week because of a parent complaint.

The passage, in which Frank writes a brief paragraph mentioning her vagina, is included in an updated version of her diary, considered an unedited version.

School officials, after initially pulling the unedited version, say they’ll leave it on the shelves after all, and review after the school year.

The life of a Jewish teenage girl who was killed by the Nazis in early March of 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp reminds me of a final thought I’ll share, one of the more touching library stories I have heard.

Of all places to find a library, Block 31 of the “Family Camp” in Birkenau concentration camp might be the most unlikely you’ll hear of. The Nazis created this rather small camp to show to the Red Cross as “proof” that they were not killing their prisoners. In reality, they were keeping these families together for just six months, 5,000 or so Jews, before gassing them en masse.

But within this camp, as recounted by Alberto Manguel in his wonderful book, The Library at Night, was an underground library for the children, consisting of only eight books. Included in them were H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World, banned in Germany, a Russian school textbook, a geometry textbook.

“It is almost impossible to imagine,” Manguel writes, “that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life should still continue.”

In Bergen-Belsen, a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was passed among the prisoners. Manguel quotes a man: “The book was my best friend; it never betrayed me, it comforted me in my despair, it told me that I was not alone.”

Shame on us when we treat the gift of books and words too cavalierly. As even the holy books tell us, with their own scenes that are difficult to look upon, there is grace to be found in expression, and blessing in understanding.


2 thoughts on “Dictionary gets the last word

  1. Amen to your closing paragraph. If I recall correctly, in the books “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” the government’s banning and burning of books is one of the primary sources of it’s ability to exercise martial law control of the citizens.

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