- 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
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
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
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