Fun fact: If you’re the kind of person who’s ever gotten into an argument on the internet, and your first, second, or third impulse was to look up the dictionary definition of a word being used in that conversation, then slap it into the thread as though you were making some sort of definitive point, you are—and we’re using a legal term here—an asshole. Doubly (if not quite a bit more) so if the word in question is “racism,” and you’re trying to work some asinine technicality to get out of accusations of bigotry.
Now—spurred on by a series of questions and emails from recent college graduate Kennedy Mitchum—Merriam-Webster is working to make this particular flavor of lexicological asshole-ery slightly more difficult to pull off. Per prompting from Mitchum, the dictionary company is refining its definition of “racism” to better acknowledge its systemic and societal elements—which probably won’t stop people from being assholes, but will at least make them a little easier to refute. Per The New York Times, Mitchum’s interest was sparked specifically by multiple people using the company’s definition of the word to argue that they weren’t racist, citing the initial definition as “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.” These same conversational debaters (or “assholes”) would conveniently ignore the next part of the definition, which notes that the word also refers to a “doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles,” which is the part that’s about to be updated with language pointing out the systemic nature of these programs. “Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a persons skin, as it states in your dictionary,” Mitchum pointed out in her initial letter. “It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. “It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”
Now, it seems uh, unlikely that the dictionary will be able to stop people from being assholes on the internet, on account of it being a dictionary, and not some kind of all-powerful magical tome. That being said, the company’s reps acknowledged that the definition of “racism” hasn’t been updated in decades, and that an improvement in its language is definitely in order. “While our focus will always be on faithfully reflecting the real-world usage of a word,” an editor for the dictionary said, “Not on promoting any particular viewpoint, we have concluded that omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself. It also does a disservice to readers of all races.”
Meanwhile, the internet’s collective assholes could absolutely be reached for a comment as we go to press, but who’s got the energy or the time?