The Dictionary. Merriam-Webster and American Heritage Versions
It has been said that to read everything in the English language all one has to do is read the dictionary because all other books are included within, albeit slightly scrambled. Still, it hardly seems likely that a reference book so critical to an education in English could be banned, but it has happened in the United States, and in relatively recent years. Dictionaries have been banned from libraries or challenged by school boards, librarians, and community groups based on their content, in several different communities.
Cedar Lake Indiana and Anchorage Alaska separately ordered the American Heritage Dictionary to be removed from school libraries because the book contained objectionable language in 1976. Some of the words found objectionable were bed – due to its use as a verb in slang – knockers, balls, and others seemingly innocuous. It seems that parents were concerned that a young mind in their charge would be curiously looking up the meaning of the word bed when used as a noun describing furniture and inadvertently be exposed to its lewd use as a verb referring to sexual conquest.
School libraries in Eldon Missouri followed suit the next year, for similar reasons and similar words. Folsom California took the same action in 1982. As late as 1992 the dictionary was banned in Churchill County Nevada schools, although reason prevailed and the book was later reinstated.
Menifee Union School District in Southern California found Merriam Webster’s Dictionary to be offensive when it learned that the reference contained a definition for oral sex. In an excruciatingly appropriate irony, the spokesperson for the school district was named Betti Cadmus. In mythology, Cadmus was a Phoenician who brought the Ancient Greeks the skill of writing. Betti Cadmus informed the press that the school board was concerned over other, more explicit definitions which were likely contained in Merriam Webster’s and that the matter would be investigated.
In another bit of irony, Noah Webster, progenitor of the Dictionary of American Language, likely would have agreed with the school board. Webster deliberately omitted several words which could be found in the Bible of his day from his dictionary due to their offensiveness to female eyes, including stink, piss, and whores. His reluctance to include words that were found in the King James Bible of his day would have been welcomed by the more prudish of later generations. In the end, Merriam-Wester’s returned to the shelves, with the requirement for an approval note from parents before a student could reference the tome.