On the Changing of the Dictionaries

On the Changing of the Dictionaries

God has given us a source of truth that reigns over every book, every dictionary, every source of information. God has given us his truth in his Word and it reigns supreme…And when even the best and greatest dictionaries have become defunct and crumbled into dust, that Word will remain fixed and constant, inerrant and infallible, as trustworthy then as it is right now and has always been.

There is something morbidly fascinating about watching dictionaries slowly but surely change their definitions of common words. It raises some questions, not the least of which strike to the very purpose of a dictionary. Is a dictionary meant to be an objective arbiter of the meaning of words? Or is a dictionary meant to subjectively list the ways in which words are used among the speakers of a particular language at a particular time? These are valid questions, especially in moments when certain key words are being intensely debated.

It is not without significance that Dictionary.com’s word of the year for 2022 was woman. “It’s one of the oldest words in the English language,” they say. “One that’s fundamental not just to our vocabulary but to who we are as humans. And yet it’s a word that continues to be a source of intense personal importance and societal debate. It’s a word that’s inseparable from the story of 2022.” They explain that searches for the word spiked last year, first when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked to provide her definition of the term—a request she denied—, then again at the overturning of Roe v. Wade and, though they don’t mention it, probably also when Matt Walsh released his film What Is a Woman?.

It was a rare case of not just a word in the spotlight, but a definition. We at Dictionary.com weren’t the only ones to take notice. The prominence of the question and the attention it received demonstrate how issues of transgender identity and rights are now frequently at the forefront of our national discourse. More than ever, we are all faced with questions about who gets to identify as a woman (or a man, or neither). The policies that these questions inform transcend the importance of any dictionary definition—they directly impact people’s lives.

They make their position on dictionaries clear when they insist that the purpose of theirs is to reflect “how people use words in the real world” and they make their position on gender identity clear when they insist that a “dictionary is not the last word on what defines a woman. The word belongs to each and every woman—however they define themselves.” In other words, they believe people are free to define themselves however they see fit and that a good dictionary will serve people by ensuring it defines words in such a way as to affirm individuals’ self-identity.

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