When the word got around that a respected dictionary had described the women of the Philippines as house maids, an outraged nation swung into action.
Stung to learn that Filipina, the word for a female citizen of their country, had been defined as “domestic help,” men and women of the Philippines began to fight back.
President Corazon Aquino promised a formal protest to the respected Oxford University Press, the media charged racism, one fuming politician branded the slap “uncivilized and insane” and women planned nationwide demonstrations.
There was one problem. Evidence of the slur was nowhere to be found.
Local critics scoured editions of the Oxford dictionary but turned up no reference to Filipina, offensive or otherwise.
Business people and politicians who had attacked the insult cleared their throats a lot and said they had just assumed that the rumors had been checked by somebody.
In London, the people at Oxford were equally perplexed.
“We’ve looked through every dictionary. We can find no reference to what they mean,” said Juliet New, trade publicity manager of Oxford University Press.
The newspaper Malaya said in an editorial that some Aquino aides should be dismissed over the mistake.
“For that slip, we were presented with the spectacle of the head of the Philippine government making a fool of herself,” the newspaper said.
The incident typified a shoot-from-the-hip reaction popular in a land where officials and media favor the dramatic and deal flexibly with facts.
“They scream before they check the facts,” lamented one foreign diplomat. “Nobody checks the facts.”
In September, a similar blooper almost brought the country to war when a Philippine navy commander accused Malaysia of annexing six southern Philippine islands.
The Philippine Senate raised a belligerent cry. Newspapers yelled for blood. Aquino dispatched several navy ships to the area.
Her speech writer, Teodoro Locsin, who also publishes the Philippine Globe newspaper, called Malaysians “brown monkeys” in editorials before someone discovered that the commander had misread a navigational map and that no islands had been taken.
The commander was sacked.
In hindsight, the recent dictionary saga, which exploded and fizzled in mid-November, may reflect oversensitivity toward the overseas image of a nation that sends more than 80,000 Filipina domestic helpers abroad each year to work.
As the incident was unfolding, the Manila Standard daily carried a cartoon showing a book labeled “Oxford Racist Dictionary,” and said that to some countries the word Filipina represented only the servants whose work allowed other women to “forgo the drudgery of their bourgeois lives and indulge in personal leisure.”
Editor-in-chief Alejandro del Rosario later said it might be “a lot of ado over nothing” but explained that such reactions were fueled by frustration at seeing fellow citizens work as servants.
Some Manila residents seem too fond of the rumor to let it drop. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry helped begin the dictionary saga in a series of written resolutions presented at its yearly conference.
Victor Lim, president of the chamber, admits that no one in his group has seen the definition, but he said there would be no correction or apology.
Indeed, Lim plans to stick with the story, perhaps changing only the name of the reference work.
“It might have been Webster,” he said.