Remember when you were in elementary school and you’d look up dirty words in the dictionary? Sometimes they weren’t there, but when they were it was pretty thrilling. And then, presumably, you grew up. If you have kids of your own you might wonder if they also look up dirty words in the dictionary, but, compared to all the other things they could be exposed to, it probably seems harmless enough. That is, of course, unless you’re a parent who’s decided to complain that the school your child attends has a copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (10th edition), which has a definition for oral sex.
I admit this does raise the issue of “age appropriateness”, but is it really necessary for the Menifee Union School District of California to convene a committee to go through the dictionary and determine what age school students it should be available to? The fact that all copies of the dictionary have been pulled from school shelves seems like an extraordinary overreaction on the part of the school board, especially since this is in response to a complaint by only one parent.
School administrators do have to walk a fine line between censorship and access to information, and I know it’s not easy, especially when you have students of different ages in the same school, but should the dictionary be put under lock and key? That might just lead to an underground market, with kids hanging around outside bookstores and giving adults money to buy them a dictionary. It’s not easy for dictionary editors either, and I’m sure the decision to include a definition for oral sex wasn’t easy, but this is just going to make it harder–er, I mean more difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. Should they also remove the term for a female dog? Should they remove synonyms for donkey or rooster, or the word semprini?
I know it’s not easy, but at a certain point adults have to grow up and realize that we can’t completely sanitize the world and prevent children from hearing things that we don’t want them to hear. If school officials had been this skittish when I was a kid my friend Richard Hertz would have been expelled.