In Response to a 22-Year-Old's Complaint, Merriam-Webster Revises Its Definition of 'Racism'

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Archive copies of the Collegiate Dictionary rest on a bookshelf at the headquarters of the Merriam-Webster dictionary publisher in Springfield, Mass., Wednesday July 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)


Does anything mean anything or matter anymore?

We’re at a fork in the road, and at least one option leads — it seems — to total insanity.

Or maybe we’re way past that fork.

Anyway, as life and America are made over, Merriam-Webster’s getting in on the action.

The iconic organization reminding us of what things mean has decided to update its definition of “racism.”

Such a maneuver comes on the heels of a complaint MW received from a 22-year-old black woman from Florissant, Missouri.

Recent Drake University graduate Kennedy Mitchum (cool name) informed the dictionary giant she disagreed with its coverage of the “R” word.

As noted by The Daily Caller, up ’til now, the word’s primary provided definition has been “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.”

On June 4th, Kennedy posted the following to Facebook:

“I’ve been having a lot of disagreements lately on social media about what racism truly means. It took the 4th person of the day to copy and paste the definition as stated in the merriam-webster dictionary to reach out and demand a change.

“It’s more to racism to just what the definition says. It’s not just disliking someone because of their race. This current fight we are in is evidence of that, lives are at stake because of the systems of oppression that go hand-in-hand with racism. After a week of back and forth with the editors of Merriam dictionary I was finally able to get the definition changed. Any victory feels great right now.”


MW’s response to Kennedy’s campaign:

“A revision to the entry for racism is now being drafted to be added to the dictionary soon, and we are also planning to revise the entries of other words that are related to racism or have racial connotations. Company policy prevents me from giving exact dates of upcoming releases or publications, but I would expect to see a revision within a few months. We ask for your patience as we review the large body of evidence for this word, including sources that doe not commonly appear in the American English corpora we have traditionally used to collect usage evidence and that we might not have thought to seek out before.”

Putting aside the social and political issues at hand, and with all respect to Kennedy — who’s trying to fix a perceived error — from a purely linguistic point of view, she and Merriam-Webster are mistaken.

If there is systemic racism, that doesn’t mean “racism” denotes a relation to systems. “Systemic” is an adjective. We have adjectives for a reason: They modify nouns.

That’s what allows “systemic racism” to mean something. “Racism” has its definition, and so does “systemic.” Put them together and you know what you get.


If Kennedy and MW are correct, then the phrase “systemic racism” is now an error — because it’s redundant. It becomes “systemic systemic racism.”

Furthermore, the fact that something can be a certain way doesn’t mean that possibility is subsumed by the word itself.

For example, a seat may be uncomfortable. But it would make no sense to add a definition to “seat” which references discomfort.

As part of Merriam-Webster’s reply, they apologized to Kennedy for harming and offending people:

“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. I will see to it that the entry for racism is given the attention it sorely needs.”

This all leads me to grand question: Given that dictates to the dictionary people can result in a revised book, what are some definitions to words you’d like to see added?

Let us all know in the Comments section.

I’m sitting on the edge of my uncomfortable uncomfortable seat.



See 3 more pieces from me:

Charlamagne Tha God: Joe Biden Has a ‘Racist’ History as Senator


Tail of the Sea: Man Complains of Stomach Pain, Doctors Find a Large Fish in His Rectum

Machete-Wielding Couple Hired to Fulfill Man’s Bedroom Broomstick Fantasy Invade the Wrong House

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