We're almost never on it...
That old laundry list again

A leading American diction-ary publisher has said it will revise entries for more than 200 offensive words after receiving complaints that some definitions, especially for the word nigger, were racist," said an article in the Sunday, May 3 New York Times ("Dictionary Will Revise Definitions Of 200 Slurs").

"The dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster, said it would make the alterations to ethnic, religious and sexual slur words in the 1999 edition of its Collegiate Dictionary," reported the Times.

There it was again: that old laundry list. "Ethnic, religious and sexual" was how it read in this story. But we see it all the time: the list of those affected in one way or another by bigotry, discrimination, oppression - the list we're almost never on.

Read through any article on a likely subject in any newspaper or magazine and you'll see the list: "civil rights, women and gay groups believe that..." "blacks, women and homosexuals have all felt society's bigotry..." "feminists, blacks, gays and others today believe that..."

We're almost always missing.

The New York Times story on the racial slur, which ran without a byline, went on to report that Merriam Webster "began its review of offensive words last October after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People objected to the dictionary's definition of the word 'nigger.'

"The N.A.A.C.P. called on its members to protest the dictionary's definition of the word as 'a black person' or 'a member of any dark-skinned race,' even though a warning quickly followed saying it was offensive," said the Times's report.

At least one disability activist saw this New York Times article and was frustrated. "Note, of course, the absence of the category of disability," read his online message.

The person behind the e-mail went on to report that he had "called Merriam-Webster and complained about the moral and ethical implications associated with words like 'deaf,' 'blind,' 'lame,' 'cripple,' and all the words with which we are familiar. They were unreceptive, but suggested I write to the editors," he reported. He called for "all of us to deluge them with mail, e-mail, phone calls"; this was how Merriam-Webster was persuaded to change the definition of "nigger," he said.

In fact, Merriam-Webster's definition of "cripple" does note that it is "sometimes taken to be offensive." (Although disability activists may wish for a different reality, in truth the entry is accurate: it is true that when the word "cripple" is used, it is only "sometimes" - not "usually" - "taken to be offensive.") And though the concerns of the NAACP got a story into the New York Times reporting that the dictionary company "would revise the format of its definitions by putting a usage warning label in italic type at the start of the entry, so readers would be in no doubt the word offends most people," the change has not yet been made even in its on-line edition.

Because the story ran in the Times without a byline, it's likely the story wasn't the result of some reporter digging out this story. In that case the reporter's name would be on the story. It was probably simply the result of information that came into the Times's National Desk via a press release or a call.

Because the NAACP is considered a group whose actions are often newsworthy (its conventions and elections of new leaders routinely occupies the front pages of the New York Times), this report caught the eye of editors who wouldn't glance a second time at a press release with ADAPT or Not Dead Yet at the top of it.

Virtually no reporter in the U.S. is assigned to keep up with any disability rights group as part of their beat; disability rights doesn't seem to editors enough of an ongoing, important issue to assign any reporter to it on a regular basis.

Whoever at the Times learned about the dictionary-maker's planned changes prompted by the NAACP's complaints wrote this story about it - and dropped in the laundry-list phrase "ethnic, religious and sexual," probably without giving the list a second thought.

The list may have come from the Merriam-Webster people, whom the Times may have called. It may have come from a press release from the NAACP, or from another source the Times interviewed. It may have simply been stuck in by the Times as a close-enough approximation of Merriam-Webster's intentions.

The list spills off the end of reporters' fingers as they type. Disability is never in it. Nobody much ever thinks of disability issues as rights issues or discrimination issues, and this common phrase, with its constant omission of "disabled," is proof of that.

Oh, if you point out that they "left out disabled people," they'll be quick enough to add them usually. But that's not the point: the point is that disability never comes to mind as part of the list of people in the U.S. who face bigotry.

Visit the Merriam-Webster site

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