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
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
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.
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
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.