Controversial definitions reflect language

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (U-WIRE) — A new debate brews over the use of racial slurs. The focus of concern is not about who uses these words of hatred, but rather whether these words should be included within the listings of America’s dictionaries.
A petition exists to have the Merriam-Webster Company either remove or rephrase its listings for the word “nigger.” The various versions of Webster’s dictionary describe the word as being a term for a black person and an offensive slur.
The groups behind the petition say that the word’s inclusion and current definition in dictionaries gives the term legitimacy. Ugly as all racial slurs are, their presence in print do not give them credence. It is the usage of slurs in our society that perpetuates them. The makers of dictionaries have a responsibility to report on our nation’s language. They have an obligation to objectivity, just as the media is obliged to report on incidents as they happen, withholding subjective interpretation in favor of reporting the true nature of events, whatever they may be.
Last week, an Ypsilanti woman filed a lawsuit against Merriam-Webster for promoting the racist use of the word. “This is a derogatory word that dehumanizes a race of people,” Delphine Abraham said. Even the NAACP in Baltimore is moving into high gear to deal with the corporation in question.
It is good that Americans today realize the derogatory nature of this slur, but removing it from a dictionary, or even listing it as discriminatory and racist does not remove the problem. Though our nation is a young one, we have a past in which many groups were unjustly treated. The institution of equal rights under the law does not mean that America is without faults. The alteration of a racial slur’s definition in a dictionary will not prevent the innuendoes from remaining as a part of our language and culture. Perhaps these groups should focus their attention on why the word is really still in use today.
Hiding this problem will not make it go away. Similar analogies abound. Banning crime thrillers from TV will not stop violence, nor will the suppression of a literary work like “Huckleberry Finn” erase America’s racist past. There is no doubt that if the word were removed from the pages of all dictionaries everywhere, it would still be uttered somewhere.
Racial slurs and vulgarities abound in dictionaries. Although they all have different meanings, none seems to be entirely accurate. Merriam-Webster’s policy is to print multiple definitions in order of the time in which they originated. The concerned groups demand the words’ firm assimilation into the political climate of today, and thus disregard the objective purpose of the dictionary.
Rephrasing these terms would be a meaningless gesture. Unfortunately, the terms would still be used and their hate-filled meanings would remain the same. Ugly words exist because people have base thoughts, not because dictionary makers need to fill up space. Our television shows, our news shows and our literature merely reflect our world; they do not create it.
Words are powerful; “Manifest Destiny,” the catch-phrase by which Americans overran North America, sounds prettier and easier to live with than “genocide,” the term many Native Americans might favor for the westward expansion. People who use hateful words will keep using them, and will keep finding justifications for their use. The groups pressuring Merriam-Webster should reconsider their position on this issue.

This staff editorial appeared in Tuesday’s University of Michigan Daily.