When You’ve Stopped Being a Dictionary
Dr. James Emery White Dr. James Emery White's weblog
- 2020 Sep 07
Dictionary.com recently uploaded its largest ever update, defining and redefining thousands of words.
It would be understandable if you thought that 2020 must have been marked by an explosion of new words as we sought to explain life in a pandemic world. Yet the massive update only included a few hundred new words as opposed to 15,000 re-definitions.
So why such an overhaul? It was to revise “language related to identity and topics like… gender and sexuality and health and wellness.”
“The work of a dictionary is more than just adding new words,” said John Kelly, senior editor at Dictionary.com. “It’s an ongoing effort to ensure that how we define words reflects changes in language—and life.”
This is true, but it is also true that there is a not-so-thin line between neutrally reflecting the changing definitional value of a word as it is used in contemporary language, and using a dictionary to promote social and cultural agendas.
For example, political parties have long known that how they speak about something can alter public perception. “Gun control” is not popular, but “gun violence prevention” is. “Estate tax” felt neutral; “death tax” did not. “Oil drilling” isn’t as appealing as “energy exploration.”
This is why advocates of passive euthanasia didn’t want it called “assisted suicide” or even “mercy killing,” but preferred “the right to die” or, even better, “death with dignity.” If they could change the language, they could change popular sentiment and, in the end, gain popular acceptance.
If you can change the meaning of a word in a way that supports your agenda, or change the description of an activity/choice that has been historically condemned in such a way as to make it seem noble, you have become a culture maker.
All to say, words matter.
This is why the recent changes made to Dictionary.com matter, for many were very agenda-based. To their credit, they did not attempt to hide it. They openly admitted they went to GLAAD – an organization committed to LGBTQ lifestyle affirmation – for recommendations. As a result, all references to “homosexual” were replaced with “gay.” Further, the definitions of other words related to LGBTQ identity, such as “asexual,” “deadname,” “Pride” and “themself” were refined in ways that positioned them for wider acceptance and affirmation in light of GLAAD’s desired cultural ends.
So now, when you look up the word “proud,” after reading that it means, “a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct,” you also read, “celebration of a specific minority group and affirmation of equal rights for members of that community.”
When you look up “themself,” after telling you it is a nonstandard reference to “themselves,” you also read that it means “a reflexive form of singular they, as used to refer to a nonbinary or gender-nonconforming person.”
When you look up “asexual,” you read the normal definition that speaks to the biological details of a living organism having no gender or sexual organs, but that is now followed with another meaning: “a person who is free from… sexuality.”
And take notice of not only the new definitions, but the highly positive verbiage attached to them, such as “celebration,” “equal” and “free.”
This revisioning goes beyond words associated with sex and sexuality to issues related to the very sanctity of human life and the treatment of the sanctity of human life, an example being that all instances of “commit suicide” have been replaced with “die by suicide” or “end one’s life.” The stated goal is to “destigmatize” certain choices or decisions.
To be clear, not all of the changes were bad. Many revisions made by Dictionary.com were spot-on. Deciding to capitalize “Black” in reference to people as a “mark of respect and recognition that’s in line with capitalizing other cultures and ethnicities” was long overdue. Also, adding new words as they emerge, or that truly take on new meanings, is critical to a dictionary’s ongoing relevance and educational service.
But it is another matter when you no longer simply reflect cultural changes in language, but rather use language to affect cultural change.
When you do that, you have moved from education,
… to indoctrination.
James Emery White
Rachel Treisman, “Dictionary.com’s Largest Update (Re)defines Thousands of Words, Focusing On Identity,” NPR, September 3, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.