Definition of words in a dictionary v freedom of speech: when worlds collide.

Young woman's handcuffed hands typing on computer keyboardThe Brazilian Federal Public Ministry filed a civil public complaint in the end of February aiming at the removal from the market of one of the most renowned and important dictionaries in Brazil – Houaiss Dictionary  – under the argument that it contained “prejudiced and pejorative expressions” to define the word “gipsy” (“cigano”, in Portuguese).

The initiative was from the Federal Public Prosecutor from the city of Uberlândia, State of Minas Gerais, Mr. Cléber Eustáquio Neves and the action was motivated by a representation filed by a gipsy back in 2009, which alleged that the Dictionary was discriminating its ethnic group.

The charge was based on the article 20 of the Law 7.716/89 which defines the crimes of discrimination by race, religion, social status and others.

Apparently, two of the eight definitions of the word gipsy were considered as an insult to the gypsy group. The dictionary informs that around 1521, for the first time the word gipsy was used by analogy to identify “retail seller of bauble, pedlar”. Moreover, it is mentioned that the fifth definition of the word gipsy appeared in 1899 with a pejorative meaning. After expressly saying that it was a PEJORATIVE meaning, the dictionary defined “gipsy” as “the one who cheats; scoffer”.

According to the Public Prosecutor, even though the dictionary expressly mentions that the definitions were “pejorative”, he understood that they hurt, in an absolutely non-justifiable way, the cultural patrimony of the gipsy nation. Therefore, he requested that Editora Objetiva – publisher of the Houaiss Dictionay – be condemned to the payment of R$ 200.000,00 (approximately US$ 115,000.00) for moral damages, in addition to the removal of the entire edition from the market. There is no decision so far in this matter.

It is a historical fact that around 1899 the word gipsy gained a pejorative meaning, because of the dense immigrations that occurred to America and the persecution that followed. Would it be right for a dictionary to omit such important historical fact and definitions because it is pejorative, even considering that the dictionary concedes that the definitions are pejorative? Further, can one word lead to the removal of a dictionary from the market, especially one of the most important and respected ones? Also, this exact same definition appears since the first edition of this dictionary, in 2001. Why only now this issue has been raised?

This blogger is not judging how damaging the pejorative definitions can be but rather whether the remedy suggested in the action – instant removal of all dictionaries from the market – is something justifiable. How would freedom of speech factor in this situation? I am sure that, if each ethnic and religious group and other groups scour the dicitionaries and encyclopedias, it will not be very difficult to find similarly damaging historical definitions.

If this trend continues, it would not be far-fetched to also start erasing historical facts because they may be damaging to a nation or to a group of people and even to a given individual.

Anna Claudia Toledo Guimarães

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