The Ideology Of 'Webster'

Was Gandhi a 'Hindu' Nationalist?

Abhijit Guha

Educated persons have an idea that a dictionary or lexicon, which is an alphabetical list of words and their meanings with pronunciation, etymology and origin, is unbiased and neutral. The same kind of belief exists about an encyclopedia, which unlike a dictionary, is a compendium of information on many subjects or any particular subject, say a medical encyclopedia. Teachers and parents always advise their students and children to look into dictionaries and encyclopedias, whenever the latter want to know the meaning of a word or about any subject. Dictionaries and Encyclopedias are supposed to supply authentic meaning of words and information on various subjects. They have become essential part of culture of the educated community. One often forgets that dictionaries and encyclopedias are compiled and written by human beings who are also products of specific cultural milieus, which could be studied by the anthropologists. An intersecting field of study between anthropology and lexicology may be the study of 'Dictionary Culture', which is still primarily a domain of the lexicographers.

A search in the Google with the phrase 'Anthropology of dictionary' or 'anthropological study of dictionary' yielded the names of numerous dictionaries of anthropology and the definition of anthropology as a subject or discipline but not any study or research done by the anthropologists on dictionaries per se. A Google search for the open access articles on the literature on Linguistic Anthropology yielded 363 full text articles by 344 authors and I could not find a single article on the study of an English dictionary ( accessed on 30.07.2020). Anthropologists have mainly done studies on the relationship between language, culture and society under a variety of spatial-temporal context. Linguistic anthropologists seemed to be chiefly interested in the construction of ethnographies around the speech communities all over the world by following the classical lead given by the American founders of the sub-discipline like Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, Dell Hymes and John Gumperz. Contemporary Linguistic Anthropology followed the trail of these founders through the study of documentation of languages, study of language through context, and study of identity through linguistic means. Take for example a textbook entitled Linguistic Anthropology published by the Cambridge University Press in 1997 neither mentioned the word 'Dictionary' in its subject index nor did the author discuss about the study of dictionaries and its influence in shaping the opinions of the public in any language. There were interesting studies by anthropologically oriented linguists on the discourse of cultural key words in which researchers wrote empirically on speech communities spread over wide regions of the world. In contrast to linguistic anthropologists the lexicographers have studied the evolution, typology and use of dictionaries in detail without forgetting the ideological content of the latter.

One of the most famous encyclopedic dictionaries is the Webster's New World Dictionary of American English, which was first published in 1951 and then in 1953 its first college edition appeared after a decade of preparation by a group of dedicated young scholars in the United States of America. The main objective of this group of energetic and enthusiastic lexicographers was to break away from the then prevailing view on dictionaries. The established view of the lexicographers was similar to the current belief about the lexicon which ran as follows: 'a dictionary or lexicon is authoritative like a law of the land. One has to abide by what the dictionary says. Lexicons can never make mistakes or errors'. Contrary to the popular belief, in the Foreword of the Webster's first college edition, the editors wrote about their dictionary that it 'was not to create the impression that it was authoritarian, laying down the law; it was to play, rather, the role of a friendly guide, pointing out the safe, well-traveled road'. Their main innovation was giving importance to relaxed pronunciation used in ordinary conversations by cultivated speakers of that language, then known as 'General American'.

The Third college edition of the Webster's New World Dictionary of American English was published in 1988 by Simon and Schuster Inc., which was the revised version of its second edition published from 1970 onwards going through several rounds of revision up to 1986. The third edition is a massive 1557-page encyclopedic dictionary with colour plates containing more than 1,70,000 words and their meanings. This dictionary was compiled by one hundred scholars in different fields with editorial assistance of specialists in 22 branches of knowledge, like, Aeronautics & Astronautics, Anthropology, Astronomy, Automotive Engineering, Biology, Biochemistry, Biophysics, Chemistry, Dentistry, Law, Music, Philosophy, Photography, Physics, Sports and many others. Interestingly, there was no special consultant and contributing editor on history and politics. Apart from words, this encyclopedic dictionary has an interesting set of entries, which is, brief information about famous scientists, litterateurs, politicians, statesmen and women, film makers, artists and sports persons. The bias of Webster in this regard is quite remarkable. For example, one doesn't find the names of Satyajit Ray or Steven Spielberg although the names of Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa appeared on pages 435, 498, 641 and 751 respectively. In case of sportspersons, the omissions are also conspicuous. One will not find the names of Sir Donald Bradman, Pelé and Lev Yashin but names of the famous US boxer Muhammad Ali and American baseball players like Willie Mays as well as George Herman Ruthhave been printed on pages 34, 837 and 1177 in that order. Interestingly, among the Indian intellectuals, one finds find the name of Jagadish Chandra Bose as 'Sir Jagadish Chandra 1858-1937: Ind.physicst and plant physiologist' on page 163 but not the name of C V Raman! The name of Rabindranath Tagore appears as 'Tagore, Sir, Rabindranath 1861-1941 Indian (Bengali) poet' on page 1363 but Swami Vivekananda did not find a place in this dictionary.

The Webster's encyclopedic dictionary seems to have a great interest in recording the names of political leaders and statesmen of the past and contemporary period of different countries of the world. Thus, one finds Fidel Castro (p.219), Che Guevara (p.599), Nelson Mandela (p.821) and Lech Walesa (p.1501) and here comes the most interesting part of the dictionary, particularly for the Indian users. The last entry in page 554 is 'Gandhi' and there are two sub-entries of the word, which are: 1. Mrs Indira (Nehru) 1917-84; Indian statesman: Prime Minister of India (1966-77: 1980-84): assassinated: daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. 2. Mohandas Karamchand (1869-1948): Hindu nationalist leader and social reformer : assassinated : called Mahatma Gandhi.' Interestingly, Indira Gandhi has been referred to as a 'statesman'. The Collins online English dictionary is not sexist like the Webster and mentioned Indira Gandhi as an 'Indian stateswoman' (file:///C:/Users/AG/Desktop/Gandhi_in_Dictionary/Gandhi%20definition%20and%20 meaning%20_%20Collins% 20English %20Dictionary.html accessed on 14.07.2020). It is relevant here to mention what the Collins online dictionary says about Mahatma Gandhi. In the British English version Collins reads about

M K Gandhi as follows:
'Mohandas Karamchand, known as Mahatma Gandhi. 1869-1948, Indian political and spiritual leader and social reformer. He played a major part in India's struggle for home rule and was frequently imprisoned by the British for organizing acts of civil disobedience. He advocated passive resistance and hunger strikes a means of achieving reform, campaigned for the Dalit, and attempted to unite Muslims and Hindus. He was assassinated by a Hindu extremist' (Ibid). More interestingly, in the American English version Collins also followed the Webster route on M K Gandhi by saying: 'Mohandas Karamchand 1869-1948; Hindu nationalist leader & social reformer: assassinated (Ibid). Another popular American dictionary, The Random House Dictionary also designated 'Mahatma Gandhi as a 'Hindu religious leader and nationalist' (p.372) but unlike Webster the former-mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru as 'Hindu political leader; first prime minister of India' (p.600). The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD) made a nice contrast in defining Mahatma Gandhi. It stated: 'Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian spiritual leader who opposed British rule in India' (https://www.oxford learnersdictionaries. com/definition/english/mahatma accessed on 30.07.2020). However, the use of the word 'spiritual' is important here since in OALD one meaning of 'Spiritual' is 'Relating to religion or religious belief' and the example sentence in italics in the same reads 'the country's spiritual leader' ( accessed on 30.07.2020).

The anthropological question, which arises, is 'Why the adjective 'Hindu' is put before the name of Mahatma Gandhi' in the Webster's dictionary? Indira Gandhi was also a Hindu but her name was not preceded by the adjective Hindu! 'Nehru is on 908. Information provided by the lexicon on Nehru, reads: 'Jawaharlal 1889-1964; Indian nationalist leader in India's movement for independence: prime minister (1947-64).' So, Jawaharlal Nehru also did not require the epithet 'Hindu' like M K Gandhi, who was popularly known by the Indians as 'Bapuji' or the 'Father of the nation' in their normal conversation. The lexicographers of Webster did not care to listen to Indian vocabulary, which they promised to do in case of the cultivated speakers known as 'General American'. In page 971, the dictionary reads: 'Paine Thomas 1737-1809; American Revolutionary patriot, writer, and political theoretician, born in England'. In page 1507, the dictionary says about George Washington: 'Washington George 1732-99: 1st president of the US (1789-97): commander in chief of the Continental army', and on page 785 it said about Abraham Lincoln: 'Lincoln, Abraham 1809-65; 16th president of the U.S. (1861-65): assassinated.

All the three great nation builders of the United States of America were Christians. Paine for example, despite his severe criticisms of The Bible believed in one supreme God and in early life he was also a member of the parish vestry, an influential local church group.

Lincoln was a believer in the Bible and frequently quoted and praised the Holy book in his speeches. George Washington also privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray. Why then the famous and prestigious Webster's New World Dictionary of American English depicted Gandhi primarily as a Hindu nationalist leader of India? Finally, The Webster says in page 727: 'Jinnah, Muhammed Ali 1876-1948: Indian statesman: 1st governor general of Pakistan (1947-1948).' Suffice it to say that Jinnah is not depicted as a Muslim nationalist by the dictionary!

The Hindu nationalist leaders all over the world may rejoice Webster's categorisation of Father of India as 'Hindu' but the ideological bias of the American lexicographers is unambiguous as narrated in this article.

Vol. 53, No. 16, Oct 18 - 124, 2020