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I recently listened to a podcast from BBC History Magazine in which Neil MacGregor, Director of The British Museum talked about world history.
To paraphrase, he said that in today’s world a Eurocentric view of history is out of place. A measure of that is an exhibit they’ve worked on in which a British viewpoint is the exception rather than the rule.
I think the word geisha also illustrates this changing approach to the study of history; in this case word history.
The Oxford English Dictionary is currently in the middle of revising the dictionary for the Third Edition. Many entries available at the OED online have been brought up to date, but many others have not.
Consequently the entry for geisha has as its most recent example citation a quoted dated 1947.
This date is relevant since geisha is a Japanese word and 1947 is only two years after the atomic bombing of Japan and its World War II surrender.
One might not be surprised to find that a dictionary definition of this vintage omits a Japanese viewpoint. Such is indeed the case with the OED Second Edition.
The etymology of geisha there is said simply to be “Japanese” and the definition reads “A Japanese girl whose profession is to entertain men by dancing and singing; loosely, a Japanese prostitute.”
I checked the OED definition for prostitute which had been updated as of June 2007 and I wasn’t surprised to find that prostitutes are expected to do more than dance and sing in their professional capacity.
Other dictionaries delve a little deeper into the etymology of geisha and in so doing expose a little more sensitive treatment of what a geisha might be.
Some break the word geisha in two explaining it as “art person.”
This sits better against the definition of a professional singer and dancer.
The Century Dictionary goes a little further saying geisha is built on words that were once Chinese: the gei means “polite accomplishments” and originally came from a Chinese word ki meaning “an art” or “a profession”; the sha ending conferring a meaning of “one who does” the art.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.