The “Great Apple Thesaurus Debate”, part III [UPDATED] - Macenstein

The “Great Apple Thesaurus Debate”, part III [UPDATED]

Posted by Dr. Macenstein

Well, the continuing saga of the “Who Put What in Apple’s Dictionary/Thesaurus?” has seemingly come to an end. In response to this latest round of inquiry, we received the following e-mail from Grant Barrett, an Assistant Editor who worked directly on the OS X dictionary. Grant no longer works for Oxford University Press, but wanted to provide some clarification on the whole “Who wrote what” debate:

“I can tell you with certainty that inclusion of that sample sentence wasn’t Apple’s doing. The thesaurus component is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, as you’d know if you’d look in the preferences. There is no such book as the “New Oxford American Dictionary & Thesaurus,” no matter what an OUP customer service representative claims. Most likely she was looking in another, different Oxford dictionary, such as the “Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus”–a completely different product with very different content–since there are several variants which do not share the same core data.

When you go to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and look up “democracy,” you find the sample sentence is indeed there, word-for-word the same.

As for whether it’s a political statement, definitely not. Sample sentences are usually pulled from a corpora of recent texts, such as periodicals and books, fiction and non-fiction, and edited or modified to serve their purpose. That sentence is so vague that it could have been written any time since the first Gulf War by anyone on any side of the political spectrum in the US or UK.

I don’t imagine that those people who are hellbent on perceiving political bias where there is none will ever be convinced, but perhaps a few people might be willing to agree that, while there is no political bias, the editors could have used much better sample sentences than the ones they chose. I would certainly agree that the one for “president” is not very illuminating, at least not in this country where we tend not to assassinate our presidents very often.

The US Dictionaries department has recently undergone restructuring; a customer service person might not have been able to figure out who to talk to. Plus, the customer service reps are based in Cary, North Carolina, while the editors are based in New York City.

I do not currently work for Oxford University Press in any fashion, nor do I speak for the company or its employees.

Grant Barrett
Double-Tongued Dictionary”

Grant’s credentials on this seem legitimate, and we think his take is likely accurate. As we said in our first post, the odds of Apple changing the wording of select phrases seemed unlikely (although we did not want to entirely rule out the idea of a bored programmer messing with things, that was just too exciting a prospect!).

It now appears that the response we received from Oxford’s customer service department was likely more of an opinion than the result of anyone there bringing the issue to an editor as they claimed they would.

So we must apologize to Apple, and anyone there who may have worked on the Dictionary App for besmirching their good name, or at least questioning their role in the origin of those phrases. It seems if anyone is looking to question the appropriateness/ perceived politcal bias of these definitions (real or imagined), they should set their sites on New York, not Cupertino.

[UPDATE:] We have received further clarification from higher up the Oxford chain of command, confirming Grant’s assertions and clearing Apple and its programmers of any unauthorized modifications to the Dictionary/Thesaurus definitions. Judy Pearsall, the Publishing Manager at Oxford, has this to say:

Dear Dr Macenstein,

I am writing to you in connection with your email of 28 March drawing our attention to the example sentence in the thesaurus entry for ‘democracy’ in the Apple version of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.

It appears that a member of Customer Service at OUP has already responded to you, but I have to inform you that the response given by that person is incorrect.

This example originally appeared in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (OUP, 2004): it was added by an editor of that title and has in no way been introduced by Apple. As with all examples used in our dictionaries and thesauruses, it is an instance of real usage taken from our databases of millions of words of current English, from newspapers and magazines to fiction, scientific journals, and blogs. Examples are chosen to reflect the way words are used in the English language today, and this inevitably includes references to topical issues or situations. The sentiments expressed in such examples do not, however, reflect the views of the editors or of Oxford University Press.

I am currently investigating why an erroneous response was sent, and am sorry for the confusion it has caused. To reiterate, responsibility for the content of the Dictionary and Thesaurus within Mac OS X is wholly OUP’s; Apple computers use the original data exactly as it is supplied to them by us.
I do hope this clears up the matter, and, once again, I apologize for the confusion caused.

With best wishes

Judy Pearsall
Publishing Manager

15 Responses to “The “Great Apple Thesaurus Debate”, part III [UPDATED]”
  1. HOORAY! says:

    I knew Apple could do no wrong!

  2. Way Cool Jr. says:

    Good news. However, I still think Apple should use a more neutral source. I looked up democracy and president in some online thesauruses, like Roget’s, Miriam webster, and Aol, and none of them provided sample usage sentences at all. Probably the way to go.

  3. wow says:

    Well, I still say that word usage for “President” is f’d up.
    I could see it describing “assassination” or even “terrorist”, but it is a very bizarre term to use to describe “president”. If you legitimately didn’t know what the term “president” meant, would that sentence help you? How about “as commander in chief, the president decided to send troops in to Iraq”, or, “the president of Nabisco decided to sell the company”, or “the president met with the heads of 30 other countries to discuss diplomacy” ? (that last one would be nice to read ANYWHERE, even if it is just a thesaurus!)

    Anyway, some odd choices in there, but glad to hear it isn’t Apple’s doing.

  4. go apple! says:

    Was there any doubt, really?

  5. Mark Richards says:

    Honestly- who cares? With all the problems in the world today is this really something anyone should care about?

  6. Jim H says:

    Oh, for God’s sake. Our country is in the hands of modern-day Stalinists. “Better have no contemporary usage examples, or else we might offend the marble statue of the Preznit we keep in our brains.”

  7. Michael says:

    I think the supposedly questionable examples were not at all. They just recorded usage, and didn’t imply agreement with anything “said” even where a phrase might have been recording an opinion.

    It’s interesting to learn how Oxford arrived at the phrases:

    “Sample sentences are usually pulled from a corpora of recent texts …”

    Do that and you’ll get a nicely up-to-date sample of the current usage of a particular word, but you could well get unwittingly entangled in current controversies.

    I notice the word “ho” is in the dictionary Oxford supplies to OS X. I suggest they’d better be careful what phrase “pulled from a corpora of recent texts” they illustrate that one with if they choose to in the next edition.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I don’t read my dictionaries/ thesauri (is that a word? Maybe I should look it up) in order to get some hip, cool current event info. When I buy one of those reference books, I have 2 criteria:
    1) which is thicker?
    2) which is cheaper?

    (and maybe which has the coolest cover. )

    They are all the same inside. No need for any editor to bust their hump trying to come up with the best sentence about terrorists assassinating the president. I can watch 24 for exciting stuff.

  9. Paul Malenke says:

    I laugh uncontrollably everytime I see that sample.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Jim H: You mean the Hillary thingy is ALREADY President???

  11. Bombos says:

    I have but 2 things to say:

    1) Read Simon Winchester’s “The Meaning of Everything” if you want to understand the historical process behind the sentence sampling that is the heart and soul of every OED.

    2) Americans are so forgetful of their Freedom of SPEECH.
    They’re just WORDS, silly *little* words…

    get a grip (on reality; not your petty preznits)

  12. ERM says:

    Grant Barrett appears on NPR’s “Away With Words” and he has presented his credentials before on the show – I believe him.

  13. Ryo says:

    Oh man… you don’t want a sample sentence with include the truth ?
    Well, then… You are lost!

  14. With “ho,” make sure you don’t insult the head of Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit.

    As for the U.S. not assasinating presidents very often, I think that’s wrong. You do assasinate your presidents pretty often. About every eleventh.

  15. Whew. I’m glad that’s off apple’s back. I can’t imagine how much it might have hurt them.

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