“Emasculating”

Ask anyone who knows me what I am like, and the first thing they will say is that I talk too much. He doesn’t know when to stop!

In keeping with that spirit, I want to address my use of the word “emasculating” in a story I wrote about a profile I wrote of Google co-founder Larry Page. For those keeping score, this is the story behind the story behind the story.

Here’s what happened. I wrote that sentence sometime last week, and as soon as I was done I Googled the word emasculating. These are the results:

Emasculating

I figured, well, the first one is OK. It means to make a person or idea weaker or less effective. When you are a reporter and a source blows you off, you certainly feel less effective.

The second one means “deprive a man of his male role or identity.” The second one was a problem.

Fast forward to today. The story was published and, wham, almost right away a number of readers started calling me out. The first was Colleen Taylor, who Tweeted at me and my boss. (Later, a very literal minded reader wrote me to ask how it was possible to feel emasculated and like a “big dork” at the same time.)

Feedback

So instead of being lazy and Googling it, I went and checked the Merriam-Webster site. A bit after that, I consulted with an old friend and companion: a compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that weighs about 600 pounds, is read through a magnifying glass, and has accompanied me from San Francisco to L.A. to San Diego to Manhattan to Brooklyn to San Francisco to Oakland.

My OED

It turns out both Merriam-Webster and the OED have the offensive definition — the one that was second on Google — as their first entry. Here’s the OED (blah blah technology, everyone should have an OED):

This photo was shot through a magnifying glass

As I told Colleen Taylor in follow-up Tweets, if Google had had the definitions reversed, I probably would have chosen another word. Her Tweet was a reminder that if you need to know a word’s exact definition, you should consult a real dictionary (or two).

This leads to an obvious question: Should I change the word now? I don’t actually have that power, but let’s say I did. The answer is probably not. Words have many definitions, but their context is key. It’s a lesson worth remembering so at this point I might as well own it.

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