The OED’s June 2004 Newsletter is called “19 April 2004: a day in the life of the OED” and contains descriptions of what the various editors, managers, planners, &c did on that day. It’s full of great tidbits of the lexicographical life. One entry that puzzled me was:

Katherine Martin, Assistant Editor (North American Editorial Unit)
I was working on a draft entry for the verb other (and the related adjective othered). Due to the complex and philosophical nature of these terms (and our mutual interest in the subject matter), Abigail and I decided to split them up — she took on the noun othering — so that we could discuss the definitions in detail and share our research.

Is anyone familiar with this verb “to other”? I’m guessing that it means something like ‘to render alien or unfamiliar’ (like German verfremden), but I’d like to know more.
(Via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)
Update. The draft entry is up, and here it is:

trans. (refl. in early use). To become conscious of by viewing as a distinct entity; (in later use) spec. to conceptualize (a people, a group, etc.) as excluded and intrinsically different from oneself. Cf. OTHER n. 9.

1936 G. E. MUELLER Philos. of our Uncertainty 89 Thought posits and realizes itself by othering itself and taking the expression of this seeming other as its own. 1963 A. W. WATTS Two Hands of God Introd. 25 In mystical traditions, God ‘others’ himself in creating the world, in creating the appearance of innumerable creatures acting on their own. 1980 Boundary 8 301 Absorption of what we have already ‘othered’ can never return us to a state of paradisal identity; it can only identify us demonically with the terrifying alienated products of our differentiating consciousness. 1995 Grand Royal No. 2. 13/3 People who are ‘Othered’ in whatever way, made to feel marginal or suppressed or oppressed or whatever. 2003 Jrnl. Women’s Hist. 15 159 Kurds similarly have been ‘othered’ by Turkish discourse as ‘backward’ and ‘traditional’, in opposition to the modern secular image of the Turk, and this image has been exported to the West.
othered a.
1980 P. WEISS You, I & Others 336 An *othered complex of individuals is quite different from othered individuals. 2003 Michigan Q. Rev. 42 653 The assumed ‘universality’ of straight white men’s writing, and the policing and self-policing, the marginalization and self-marginalization, of othered groups’ writings are two sides of the same racially and sexually delimited coin.

I don’t like it any better now that I see the examples.


  1. That usage had a brief boom in Vancouver intellectual circles in the late 80’s early 90’s, as an extreme example of “political correctness”, (in the old, proper, as used by the left sense)as a synonym for “exoticising”. For example, one would compliment an Indo-Canadian woman’s sari to be told to “stop othering her”. But at least within my hearing it died out fairly quickly.

  2. Very interesting. And where but in North America could a person be called Abigail Zitin?

  3. augh, this is awful! i think you’re right, lh, but i don’t see why they think this word is worth including. and i feel strange saying that. hopefully it would be marked as jargon, as it should be.

  4. also, i am not a linguist but god that sounds like a great job.

  5. ‘Othering’ is still a widely-used term in academic circles, particularly in postcolonial studies. I’m surprised that people here aren’t more familiar with it — but it’s obviously failed to make the leap across from academic discourse to general acceptance.
    Actually I find it quite a useful expression — that is to say, I think it expresses a valid idea, that ethnic minorities often find themselves defined negatively (i.e. in terms of their difference from the dominant culture) rather than positively (i.e. in terms of their own distinctive culture and beliefs). But like a lot of useful expressions, it suffers from over-use.
    The OED Newsletter is fascinating; thanks for the link!

  6. I think it expresses a valid idea, that ethnic minorities often find themselves defined negatively… rather than positively
    But why would “other,” a neutral word, express that? And isn’t that what the existing word “prejudice” is for?

  7. But why would “other,” a neutral word, express that? And isn’t that what the existing word “prejudice” is for?
    At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to speak for arnold (which I wouldn’t presume to do), “other” is not a neutral word in the academic circles to which he’s refering. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the verb “to other” and the specific use (probably fair to call it jargon) of “the other” as a noun arises out of the whole school of contemporary philosophy (postmodernism, deconstruction, among others) that draws attention to the way the history of philosophy and culture has privileged “sameness” over “difference” (or “otherness”). In this context, “other” is always negative, since “the one” or “the same” is the positive in a dualism (which contemporary thought is trying to blur or destroy).
    Like arnold, I thought this usage had crept beyond the walls of academia to become pretty common in regular usage, but perhaps this is not the case.

  8. Also, by “negatively” arnold probably also means defined in opposition to something else, rather than “positively” on one’s own merits. Though my argument is that this use of “negatively” also extends to imply “pejoratively.”

  9. First, start with “other” as a pronoun, not an adjective. “Others” are people who are not us–Others are them. When there’s conflict, we we are told that the Other are not like us, they don’t value human life we do, they have odd, barbaric beliefs. Any group of people can be the Other, depending on the political needs of the day.
    It wasn’t all that long ago that the French, for example, were one of Us. Westerners, with western values, in an east-west conflict. We might kid with them in a good-natured way, a kind of sibling rivalry. Then, when politics demanded it, the French became (for the wingnuts, anyway) an alien Other who are ineluctably opposed to everything We hold dear.
    American progressives and liberals have been baffled in recent years by political speech that treats us not as rivals or antagonists but as Others. Witness Coulter, Limbaugh, et al. There is no need for debate. We’ve been Othered.
    There is a known, predictable process of rhetorical shifts in public discourse which transforms a group of people into an Other. The verb Othering describes the process. (And whenever I’ve seen it, it’s been capitalized like that.)
    Contemporary rhetors, when they’re doing their job well, can accurately describe the process by which language is used to affect this shift. And yes, the “Tourist gaze” (to which Peter C alludes) is often part of that. Where contemporary rhetoric gets derailed, IMO, is when it shifts from a descriptive rhetoric to a prescriptive one. (That is, there’s a big leap from “this is how Othering works” to “you should not Other.” Again, consider the alienating use of the verb “Other” that Peter describes. Personally, I think contemporary rhetoric would be well served by a revival/reappraisal of existentialism.)
    (IANARh. My ex-wife is a rhetor, and I used to grill her extensively about just what is she does.)

  10. Yikes. I assure you academics that this usage has not “crept beyond the walls of academia to become pretty common in regular usage,” and I certainly hope it doesn’t; we’ve got enough jargon already. Brian, I take your point about his use of “negatively,” and I should have read more carefully — I was just too horrified by the whole new world of jargon revealed to me. And yes, I’m aware that specialized vocabulary can be necessary, but this doesn’t sound like one of those cases. We can talk about marginalizing people, demonizing people, even (if need be) seeing people as “other” — the English language has all kinds of resources. We don’t need to torment it by making a verb out of “other.” What’s next: to Self? to Them? Bah.

  11. Are you othering me, or what? 🙂
    For what it’s worth, I agree with you re the use of jargon and the need to keep it at bay. I blame Derrida most (for this word/discussion in particular). It’s one of the reasons I left a philosophy doctoral program for a vocation in publishing. My only regret is that I’ve become so scarred that I can no longer distinguish jargon from everyday speech. At least I don’t talk like that, even if I recognize the usage.

  12. LH, when I asked the ex why rhetoric texts used such difficult language to express such simple ideas, she suggested that it was intentional. In other words, if you’re going to use language to describe the way that language shapes reality, you need to use language that’s too obtuse to do any reality-shaping itself. I think that’s a fool’s errand. Either language does what it does or it doesn’t. If all language is political, then language about how language is political, is political. You can’t avoid it.
    (For those who’ve ever wondered about the true origins of the term politically correct, it’s lurking in the implications of the above paragraph.)
    My day-to-day experience with rhetoricians is that they believe that their knowledge of how language creates reality means that their subjective reality is less subjective than mine. On which I call bullsh*t.
    (Of course, considering that it’s my ex-wife I’m basing this on, subjectivity is key. But I try to be above that.)

  13. I think your ex is right, and (needless to say) I agree with you. And you can tell her I said so!
    Brian: There should be groups to aid survivors of academia, who go around with their vocabulary so terribly scarred.

  14. I don’t particularly like the sound of the word “othering”, it doesn’t fall easily from my lips, but I do find it useful. I believe that “prejudice” implies (to most people) a natural and ancient hatred between groups, while “othering” implies a political act. If we were to talk about Germany in the 1930s we could say that there existed a long standing prejudice against Jews, but that the Nazi party undertook a campaign of “othering” the Jews in order to pave the way for the “final solution”. In this sense “othering” is much closer to “Race-Baiting” than to “prejudice”; however, its scope is wider, since it doesn’t apply only to “race”, but to any basis of discrimination.
    See my post on untermenschen for a somewhat related discussion.

  15. I hear the term a fair amount in feminist circles and have always assumed it came from de Beauvoir: “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman no in herself but as relative to him … he is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other.” (The Second Sex)
    The verb form “to other”, then, means to assume that one’s own standpoint is universal or default and everyone else is different. We are unmarked, you are marked.

  16. If by “the term” you mean “Other” as a Capitalized Fright Noun, de Beauvoir may be a source for some people. If you mean the verb, she’s clearly not, because she doesn’t use it as a verb. And while I understand the intended meaning, I think the choice of terminology is willfully obscure (and in my opinion repellent).

  17. what is this

  18. Having had my attention drawn to this post by linh’s laconic comment (I’m not sure if it’s subtle academic irony or simple internuttery), I looked up the verb and added the draft entry.

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