Monday, July 16, 2007

Definition of Obscenity

People who write dictionaries do not decide what words should mean, they merely report the meanings in current use.  Therefore, a survey of English dictionaries published over the years reveals the meaning of obscenity as used by English speaking people generally.

An old defnintion from England held that obscene meant "immodest; not agreeable to chastity of mind."  (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1755.)

The unassailable Oxford English dictionary says, "offensive to modesty or decency; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas."  (The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, 1933 edition.)

For most Americans, the name Noah Webster is synonymous with the word dictionary.  In his first (1828) edition, Webster defined obscene as "offensive to chastity and delicacy; impure; expressing or presenting to the mind or view something which delicacy, purity and decency forbid to be exposed."  (An American Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged), New York, 1828.)

Webster published his own second edition in 1840, and in 1847 George and Charles Merriam published the third edition.  In these editions the definition of obscene did not change.

In 1909, the G. & C. Merriam Company introduced the New International dictionary. The "new" definition of obscene was "offensive to chastity of mind or to modesty; expressing to the mind or view something that delicacy, purity, and decency forbid to be exposed."  (Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Springfield, Mass., 1936.)

The leading abridgment of the New International is the Collegiate series of dictionaries.  Until 1961, the Collegiate definition of obscene was "offensive to chastity or to modesty."  (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co.: Springfield, Mass., 1961.)

There have been other dictionaries in America, but all of them have been strikingly similar to Webster on the definition of obscene.  The Standard series of dictionaries, written by Isaac Kouffman Funk in 1893 defined obscene as "offensive to chastity, delicacy or decency."  The Century series of dictionaries, edited by William Dwight Whitney between 1889 and 1891 defined obscene as "offensive to modesty or decency, indecent."

Even today, many dictionaries continue to give variations of that same definition.  For example, The Random House College Dictionary published in 1982 says "offensive to modesty or decency; indecent; lewd."  See also the on-line The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, copyright 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company, which says "offensive to accepted standards of decency or modesty."

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R. Gary said...

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