Apple's stock Dictionary app is in the spotlight this week after a Massachusetts teen took issue with a derogatory definition of the word "gay." But not every Mac shows the same definition — and, of course, Apple didn't write the entry, it just licensed it.
Becca Gorman, a 15-year-old tenth grader in Sudbury, Mass., was doing research for a paper on gay rights, and had decided to look up the word "gay" in her MacBook Pro's built-in Dictionary application, according to a report in the MetroWest Daily News. To her dismay, among the definitions was the following:
informal foolish; stupid: making students wait for the light is kind of a gay rule
This is, in fact, common usage, but the issue is that it wasn't given the "offensive" or "derogatory" tags found in other places inside the dictionary database. Gorman, struck by this as potentially a tacit endorsement of this sense of the word, took the matter to her parents, who happen to be a lesbian couple. They encouraged her when she decided to write an email to Apple CEO Tim Cook, which read in part:
I assume that you are a pro-gay company, and would never intend for any one of your products to be as offensive as this definition was. Even with your addition of the word informal, this definition normalizes the terrible derogatory twist that many people put on the word “gay”. ... When I look at this definition it makes this hatred filled use of the term as something as okay as “dude”.
I am asking for you to remove this definition from the Dictionary you are promoting, or to make a significant change to it. I also think it would be a good idea to apologize to the gay community, a good amount of your customers. Thank you for your cooperation, I love your products.
Apple has indeed been quietly but reliably gay-friendly, providing company benefits to same-sex couples and lobbying against California's Proposition 8, among other things.
According to MetroWest, which republished Gorman's letter, an Apple representative called the teen's home just an hour after the email was sent, and told her the company would be looking into it, though nothing official has been announced, nor have any updates been issued.
As the story spread, however, it became clear that not all Macs were giving the same definitions. NBC News checked several Macs, and while some had the definition exactly as quoted by Gorman, some included "offensive" alongside "informal." (Strangely, The Daily Dot found a version where the third sense was just plain omitted.)
Apple doesn't write its own dictionaries; the one used by the Dictionary app in OS X and iOS in the U.S. is the New Oxford American Dictionary. Looking up the word with that dictionary's online tool, the definition provided includes "offensive."
The explanation is likely that the new definition ("foolish; stupid") was added at some point to Oxford's system, and that, along with countless other updates, was sent to Apple for use in their Dictionary app. Some time thereafter, Oxford amended the framing of the definition, adding "offensive," and soon that update too was sent to Apple.
Anyone using an old version of the Dictionary app, for whatever reason, would see the old definition, of course. Just what versions have which definitions isn't clear.
NBC News contacted Apple for comment, and a representative referred us to the Oxford Dictionaries FAQ on its handling of "vulgar and offensive" language. The company's editors are "constantly re-evaluating and improving" such things, and evidently the entry for "gay" was among those that was reassessed; Oxford University Press (which publishes the dictionaries) did not reply immediately to requests for further information.
So Gorman's request that Apple update the definition has, in fact, already been granted: NBC News confirmed that the dictionaries included in the latest versions of Apple's operating system, OS X Mavericks and iOS 7, both label the negative use of the word as "offensive."
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.