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The Dictionary


Last year (1998) George

Babiniotis, professor of linguistics at the

University of Athens, compiled "The Dictionary of the Modern Greek

Language." The dictionary was a much needed work, given the fact that all

Greek dictionaries up to that time were rather "childish" efforts in

lexicography. Babiniotis adopted (mostly) the Merriam Webster approach to a

reference publication. Even the formatting and the fonts resemble those of the

Merriam Webster dictionaries. The result was an excellent reference work from

all points of view; entries, etymology, etc. However, the dictionary had a

fatal flaw. It had a Patriotically Incorrect (PI) entry!

The PI entry: " Bulgarian … 2. (excessive, derogatory) the fan or

player of a team from Salonica (mainly of P.A.O.K.)."

This (rather malicious and silly) name-calling is quite common. Greeks from

the southern parts of the country, especially from Athens, when angry, insult

people from the northern parts, especially Salonica, by calling them

"Bulgarians," given the fact that the Bulgarian border is a few

kilometers away from where the Northerners live. It is much stronger than the

equivalent of a US Southerner calling (insultingly) a Northerner a

"Yank," but the spirit is the same. As expected, the sports fans

easily incite themselves with this kind of name-calling and reach a higher

level of hooliganism. P.A.O.K is usually the Salonican (soccer or basketball)

team that attracts this kind of Grreek-Christian benevolence.

So, immediately after the Babiniotis dictionary hits the bookstores, out

come the patriots, the nationalists, the Greek Orthodox, the adherents of the

purity of the Greek race, the PC intellectuals, the cryptonazis, et al.

Prominent among them politicians and intellectuals of both the rightist New

Democracy party and the ruling "socialist" PASOK party. For weeks

the Babiniotis dictionary and its controversial entry are dominating the

media. Intellectuals of all kinds and laypeople with shouts full of hate and

patriotic fervor demand the head of Babiniotis.

Babiniotis and his dictionary are dragged to court "for unlawful

affront to the personality" of the Northerners, etc, etc. The court of

the first instance finds Babiniotis and his dictionary guilty! The court

orders the removal of the dictionary from the bookstores. Remember, this is

1998!

At first Babiniotis tries to defend his work on a scientific basis, but he

is terrorized by the shrill chauvinism of the "professional"

Christian patriots and agrees to remove the entry in future editions. Finally,

Babiniotis finds the courage to take his case all the way up to the Supreme

Court (which bears the classical Greek name of Areios Pagos). In April 1999,

the Supreme Court rules that the controversial entry does not constitute

"an affront to the personality…, because the Babiniotis dictionary does

not use, or promote, or adopt the entry, but has it only as a neutral

listing…"

Happy ending of the story? Not exactly. It is depressing to realize how

easily the reactionary sector of a society can commandeer the media and spill

their hate and stupidity. However, the fact that the Supreme Court ruled

rationally, whether from the need to avoid international ridicule or from

motives of honesty, is a step forward.

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Some comments and some reminiscences:

Professor George Babiniotis is a politically conservative person. I have

the feeling that the experience from this rather brutal confrontation with the

politico-religious reactionary forces taught him some very valuable lessons.

On May 28, 1978 Noam Chomsky gave a lecture at the University of Athens for

the Department of Linguistics, headed by Professor Babiniotis. (Theme of the

lecture: "Language and the Development of Knowledge"). After the

lecture, as usual, Noam invited anyone in the audience that wished to discuss

any subject with him to meet him at Babiniotis’s office. I went and met Noam

for the first time in my life. In the brief conversation that we had I

mentioned his remark in "American Power and the New Mandarins" in

which he bitterly says: "We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed

in the United States is dissent-or denazification", of course Noam had

not changed his mind. (Remember, that was 1978, aeons before Kosovo). Also, I

remember mentioning "Seven Days", the "transition"

magazine between the closing of "Ramparts" and the "birth"

of "Z", as part of the dissent in the US. (By the way, is there a

history of the US alternative press?)

A few years after the Noam lecture, as I was passing by the U. of Athens,

on the spur of the moment I decided to walk up the stairs to Babiniotis’s

office and ask him if he knew anything about a Chomsky forthcoming book, I

think it was "Turning the Tide." Babiniotis said that he had no idea

(a surprise for the naive me) and I was left with the impression that he was

not very comfortable with the question about a Chomsky political book. Anyway,

his dictionary is OK.

Although soccer, football, etc might or might not be the "opium of the

people" (I think it is), nevertheless, it is interesting to reflect about

the potential for political protest from a crowd in a stadium. Of course,

Greeks calling Greeks "Bulgarians" in a stadium, politically is

rather uninteresting. By the way, the only party that should have been

offended by the derogatory use of the word "Bulgarians", should have

been the Bulgarians themselves. Of what I know, to their credit, the

Bulgarians were mature enough to not pay any attention to this dictionary

childishness. However, let as take as an example the opportunity for political

protest that arose in Belgrade a few days ago, on June 27, during a soccer

game between the two top teams of Yugoslavia, the "Red Star’ and the

"Partisan." Following the global (sports) religion, the supporters

of the Jugoslavian teams hate the guts of each other. The soccer game itself,

a final, was almost ignored by the crowd, what was dominant for them was their

political protest. The "Red Star" fans started first by shouting

from their side of the stands: "Slobo, you sold out Kosovo!" The

"Partisan" fans answered: "We’ll celebrate for a month, if we

get rid of Slobodan!" Finally, the fans of both teams shouted in unison:

"Slobo get out, resign!" ("Eleftherotypia", June 28,

p.18). Did this send a message to Milosevic? Maybe.

Of course, humanity will make "a giant step" forward when the

fans in American Stadiums shout in unison: "No to the Clintons!", or

"Nuremberg for the NATO killers!", etc, etc.

Finally. a few comments on "dictionary etiquette." In the late

sixties, besides the Vietnam turmoil, there was quite a tumult (in Time, etc)

about the respectability awarded to "ain’t" in the Third Edition of

the Merriam Webster, which came out in 1969. Of what I remember, the conflict,

if not of the Babiniotis intensity, was quite lively. Now, after 30 years, to

celebrate the Babiniotis victory I made a brief research on the Merriam

Webster history of "ain’t". Here are the results:

Year 1903 Webster’s First Stylistic label: [ colloq. or illiterate speech]

Total words in entry: 13

Year 1945 Webster’s 2nd Stylistic label: [Dial. or

Illit.] Total words in

entry: 16

Year 1969 Webster’s 3rd No stylistic label; "ain’t" accepted as

part of the standard English!!! Total words in entry 9 LINES.

Year 1993 Webster’s 10th, Standard English Total words: 3 LINES for the

main Collegiate entry plus 17 LINES for the usage

Does the above list mean a defeat for the reactionary elites? I think it

does. The same holds for the Babiniotis dictionary.

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