On Thursday, June 4, 2020, a 22-year-old activist named Kennedy Mitchum reached out to the publishers of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to express her frustration with their definition of the word "racist:"
A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
Mitchum felt this was inadequate to fully cover the scope of systemic issues and unconscious biases that affect race relations in America. Growing up in Florissant, Missouri — just a few miles away from Ferguson — she'd grown tired of trying to explain to people that racism can come in different forms than cross burning in white hoods. It's not always a conscious, intentional, or deliberate attitude of hateful violence; it's often something more insidious. As she explained to CNN, "That definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world. The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice it's the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of black Americans."
Mitchum didn't expect to hear anything back from Merriam-Webster. But to her surprise, they responded the very next day — and after a brief back-and-forth, they were sufficiently convinced of Mitchum's point, and agreed to update the entry. "This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem," wrote Editor Alex Chambers in an email. "We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner." Read the rest
Austin Kleon with some excellent advice: "Go to Goodwill and buy a gigantic used paper dictionary for $5 and keep it on your desk."
When you’re looking for a word to replace a word in your writing, John McPhee suggests skipping the thesaurus and going straight to the dictionary: "With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus."
The dictionary not only gives you a gives you a list synonyms for the word you’re looking up, it also gives you a deeper understanding of the meaning of the word, and sometimes the definition can lead you to a better way of phrasing altogether. (Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”)
There are benefits to spending a little more to grab a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English or Merriam-Websters; note that the ODE is not the OED [Amazon] which is on another level of logophilia entirely. Get it as well.
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Glasgow-based Collins Dictionary has chosen their 2018 Word of the Year: single-use. The adjective meaning "made to be used once only" beat out the abbreviation VAR ("video assistant referee"), floss (the dance, not the dental product), gammon (a white, angry male who supports Brexit), and plogging (a Swedish activity that involves jogging and picking up litter).
Selected as the #CollinsWOTY 2018, single-use encompasses a global movement to kick our addiction to disposable products. From plastic bags, bottles and straws to washable nappies, we have become more conscious of how our habits and behaviours can impact the environment...
Our records show a four-fold increase in usage of this word since 2013, with news stories and the likes of the BBC’s Blue Planet II raising public awareness of this environmental issue.
"Single-use" also beat out other words on this year's shortlist: whitewash, vegan, MeToo, and backstop.
image via Collins Dictionary Read the rest
While looking something else up, I came across Merriam-Webster's new online "Time Traveler" feature today. It allows you to browse to see what words were first used in print for a particular year.
"Idiot box" was first used in 1955, "granola" in 1970, and "cyberpunk" in 1983. "Bloodletting" was used before the 12th century and "bootleg" first appeared in 1634.
It's a lot of fun to play with but, according to Merriam-Webster, there are the factors to keep in mind when using it:
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The date may not represent the very oldest sense of the word. Many obsolete, archaic, and uncommon senses have been excluded from this dictionary, and such senses have not been taken into consideration in determining the date.
The date most often does not mark the very first time that the word was used in English. Many words were in spoken use for decades or even longer before they passed into the written language. The date is for the earliest written or printed use that the editors have been able to discover.
The date is subject to change. Many of the dates provided will undoubtedly be updated as evidence of still earlier use emerges.
Kory Stamper, author of the new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries describes three criteria Merriam-Webster uses for inclusion of words like truther, binge-watch, photobomb and the 1,000 other words that make the cut in a typical year. Read the rest
Also: Photobomb, crowdfund, totes, sext, and nearly 500 more. Read the rest
The rooms are neither as dusty, nor as bald of sound, as one might imagine the cloisters of the Oxford English Dictionary. There are no books piled in the cracked tile hallways, no atmospheric beams of light angling into the tranquil gloom. No old clunking timepiece marks the infinitude of time. Read the rest