The Dictionary Definition of Racism

Just as public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests over police violence are moving Americans toward positive social changes, so too do they reveal an inadequacy in how we have defined racism.

We’ve written frequently about how the meanings of words change over time. The prescriptivists among us tend to hold on to meanings that have served us well (e.g., impact, literally), while the descriptivists more readily adapt to evolving uses. We’ve talked about how pronunciations change as well (e.g., forte, schism).

We’ve also written about emergent words that describe new concepts and technologies (e.g., app, bromance).

This week we noticed what seems to us to be a subtle yet significant twist in the area of changing definitions and new words. Some of you may have noticed recent news articles reporting that the editors at Merriam-Webster announced they will be revising their definition of racism.

The reason we say this is subtle and significant is that it differs from how we’ve described these changes in the past. This time, it doesn’t concern how the population generally uses the word or what word a new technology is requiring to describe it; rather, we’ve discovered the dictionary definition of racism has lacked a necessary element for greater understanding.

Merriam-Webster defines racism as

1a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2aa doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles

ba political or social system founded on racism

3racial prejudice or discrimination

A recent graduate of Drake University wrote a series of emails to the editors at Merriam-Webster convincing them their entry needed to reflect how racism is systemically embedded in our society’s institutions. She noted how people tend to focus on Webster’s first definition, which emphasizes individuals’ beliefs but overlooks systemic racism. She wrote, “There is a system, and then there is individual bias. There are structures that perpetuate racism and then people who give in to that system. These two things should go hand in hand.”

Following internal discussions, an editor at M-W responded, “We will make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition.”

Even though the dictionary definition didn’t include this dimension, the spirit of racism did. Can improving a word’s definition help to improve us as a society? We hope so. The editors at Merriam-Webster are at work revising the second part of their definition. We’ll let you know what results.


In keeping with our focus on formal guidelines and trends in English grammar and word usage, we will not be posting comments on this article. However, at a later date we will report on whatever change Merriam-Webster has decided upon.

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