In a rare bit of good news, Dictionary.com has added, updated, and amended its definitions of many words, most notably those describing LGBTQIA people. Language doesn’t just describe, it is used to characterize both positively and negatively.
Dictionaries, like libraries, should be professional and unbiased, above and outside of political ideology. They should be a reflection of people and society, not an extension of government nor an “authority” of what belongs in society.
The dictionary is queerer than ever.
On Tuesday, the website Dictionary.com announced that it is adding 650 new words to its glossary, in addition to revising over 11,000 existing definitions in its search engine. The update — which the site says is its largest-ever — reflects changing vocabularies around race, sexual orientation, gender, and mental health, and several new entries comprise terms pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community. These words include “ace,” “asexual,” “biromantic,” “deadname,” “gender-inclusive,” “trans+,” and “Pride.”
For instance, the newly added search result for “biromantic,” an adjective, refers to an individual “who is romantically attracted to people of two specific and distinct gender identities, as both men and women,” according to Dictionary.com.
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“The work of a dictionary is more than just adding new words,” explained John Kelly, a senior editor at Dictionary.com, in a statement. “It’s an ongoing effort to ensure that how we define words reflects changes in language — and life.”
The numerous revisions are designed to put “people, in all their rich humanity, first,” Kelly added.
Kory Stamper (LitHub) wrote in 2017 about the changing definition of marriage. Although lexicographers are educated enough to understand the need for change, her essay demonstrates part of the problem of dictionaries: not changing “accepted” definitions until there is a critical mass that requires it. Definitions should change when societies change, even when it’s the tiniest minority.
I ducked my head back under my arm and tried to be as Zen as possible, but curiosity got the better of me. I clicked the link and was taken to a clip from The Colbert Report. “Folks,” Colbert began, “turns out my old nemesis is back.” As he pulled a Collegiate up onto his desk, I maneuvered the mouse over to the pause button and jabbed violently. Noooooope, I thought, no, I can’t watch this. Not after the last two weeks. But the screen had frozen at an odd point, and I felt slightly uncomfortable staring at a grimacing Stephen Colbert. I relented. I slid my glasses up to the top of my head and rubbed my face vigorously. My forehead throbbed where I had been pressing it to my desk.
Colbert was finishing up a joke about “zymosan” when I focused on the screen again. He was saying that we had changed the definition of “marriage,” and added a new meaning: “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.” This was true. “That means, gay marriage,” he explained. “I’m beginning to suspect that Merriam and Webster were conjugating more than just irregular verbs.”
I snickered. It had been the first honest laugh I’d had in a while.
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Lexicographers like to justify our existence by saying that words matter to people, and that the meaning of words matter to people, therefore lexicography matters. This is only a bit of a lie: if a word matters to a person, it’s most likely because of the thing that word describes and not because of the word itself. Sure, everyone has a word (or a handful of words) that they adore because they love the sound, the feel, the silliness or silkiness of the word; I defy anyone to say the word “hootamaganzy” aloud and not immediately fall in love with it, regardless of what it means.2 But scanning through the top lookups on any dictionary website shows that most words that interest us do so because we are unclear about the thing to which they are applied or we want to use the definition to run a litmus test on the situation, person, event, thing, or idea that that word was used of.
We know this bit of behavioral trivia not because this is innate knowledge lexicographers have about how people interact with their dictionaries but because of Internet comments. As dictionaries have moved online, lexicographers have developed a direct connection with users that they’ve never had before. The one thing that is most striking about all these comments—good, bad, ugly, and uglier—is that lots of people are really interacting with language in the etymological sense, expecting a mutual and reciprocal discourse from the dictionary definition.