From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, it was common practice for publishers to put out little dictionaries specifically edited and designed for preteen and young teenage girls. Their vinyl covers featured popular characters or aspirational figures (the cute scholar on the white one pictured here is named “Miss Sophista Kate”) and they were often a single item in a whole line of similarly designed accessories, from scrapbooks and photo albums to makeup kits and carrying cases for 45-rpm records.

   While these abridged dictionaries may have helped with school essays, kids looking for titillation or enlightenment were mostly out of luck when it came to “naughty” words. “Sex” was defined as the “condition” or “character of being male or female,” and though body parts associated strictly with reproduction were listed (“ovary” and “testicle”); those used only for sexual pleasure weren’t (“clitoris”). Alas, Ken didn’t have a penis, and neither did Barbie’s dictionary. Nor was Miss Sophista Kate quite so sophisticated. But the Date Line dictionary (published by Random House; the other two pictured here contain a “Concise Version” of Webster’s) included the word, along with “vagina.” Somewhat surprisingly, considering the age of the intended readership, none of these three dictionaries contain the word “menstruation,” though once again, Date Line came through with “menses” and “menopause.”

   Each dictionary also featured an appendix of useful charts, tables of weights and measures, and other material. The Barbie and Miss Sophista Kate dictionaries thoughtfully reprinted the U.S. Constitution and Gettysburg Address. Date Line’s back pages featured a calorie counter, a stain removal chart, and a list of wedding anniversaries, almost anticipating that a reader who knew what a penis and a vagina were might find herself married too soon. Then again, it also contained the word “contraception,” where the others did not.

   Even though most mid-20th-century grade schools included a dictionary on their back-to-class supply lists, these vinyl-backed editions seem to have been a girls-only phenomenon. So why didn’t manufacturers jump on the opportunity to create similar volumes for boys, featuring hot rods, cowboys, or other manly motifs? Perhaps one reason was that, by certain standards of the era, being better in English class than at sports might get a boy labeled a “sissy”—a word thankfully absent from these girly dictionaries.

-Lynn Peril

Photo: Sarah Anne Ward, Prop Stylist: Maya Rossi

  This article originally appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of BUST.  Get it on newsstands now or subscribe!  

Tagged in: Linguistics, language, feminist history, dictionaries   

The opinions expressed on the BUST blog are those of the authors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the position of BUST Magazine or its staff.




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