Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A “wheelchair dude” in our Macs

Our daughter Rachel brought to her family’s attention the item above, found in the digital version of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (1st edition), standard software on a Mac. When I read the sentence that caught Rachel’s eye — “I observed this wheelchair dude in the vestibule waiting for me” — I was baffled. I wrote back: This is in our computers?! Sure enough, it is. Our son Ben said I should write about it.

Apple’s not responsible for this sentence of course. Oxford University Press is. As Rachel discovered, the sentence has been noticed before, in the spirit of ha! and WTF. But there’s nothing, really, that’s funny here, aside perhaps from the incongruity of dude and vestibule appearing in the same sentence. As Rachel points out, the phrase “wheelchair dude” is the exact opposite of what’s called person-first language, phrasing that takes care not to equate a person with a condition. (Consider, for example, the difference between “He’s LD” and “He has a learning disability.”) Contra Wikipedia’s article on person-first language (written or revised by an expert in ax-grinding), that kind of care in language is hardly a matter of “politically correct linguistic prescriptivism.” It’s really no more than respectful common sense.

What were those Oxford dudes smoking?


August 21, 2012: Now I wonder if David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest helps to explain this sentence, which has disappeared from the Mac’s OATW. Infinite Jest is filled with men, dangerous men, in wheelchairs. I’m thinking in particular of a scene in the novel in which Rémy Marathe, posing as a survey-taker, sits in a hotel hallway and knocks on a door. The only vestibules in IJ though are found at the Enfield Tennis Academy. Is this “wheelchair dude” waiting for Hal Incandenza?

Wallace contributed a couple of dozen notes on usage to the OAWT, at least some of which are available in the Mac’s version of the thesaurus.

September 18, 2012: It turns out that this sentence has nothing to do with Infinite Jest. Here is an explanation from Judy Pearsall, Editorial Director, Dictionaries, at Oxford University Press:
In answer to your question, the original quote comes from a 1983 memoir called Hey Cabbie, by Thaddeus Logan. It appeared, as you point out, as an example of usage of the word ‘observe’ in the first edition of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. In the second and third editions the same sense is illustrated by two different quotations:
– every time he looked at her now, he observed something new
– other behavioral problems have been observed in our patient population
Oxford has the largest language programme in the world and we use real examples of use to illustrate how words are used in our dictionaries. Examples are selected for a range of reasons, including typicality of use, helpful illustration, and so on. We don’t aim to censor examples according to the view of the writer, political or otherwise. However, if an example is distracting because of unusual or colourful language, then it’s not really doing its job of illustrating the word in question, in this case ‘observe’. That’s why, when we reviewed it, we decided to change it.
She adds, “I like your hypothesis about DFW but the truth of it may be more prosaic.”

Is it ever. It didn’t occur to me that this sentence might have had a source. Had I thought to check Google Books, I would have found it:

Thanks to Erin McKean for forwarding my query, and thanks to Judy Pearsall for the explanation and for permission to quote it.

A related post
DFW, thesaurus entries

comments: 3

Elaine said...

If I had a nickel....

Rachel said...

It's interesting how this played out!

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, because of you, RL. Lifelong learning. :)