Vocabulary Preferences

Merriam Webster Hastily Alters Definition

The Amy Coney Barrett hearings are in full swing, and even Merriam-Webster wants to get in on the fray.

On Tuesday of this week, Senate Democrats and the media chastised Judge Barrett for using the phrase “sexual preference” to describe gays or lesbians when answering a question about the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Sen. Mazie Hirono (HI) told Barrett she was disappointed that the judge refused to answer a question about whether or not she agreed with how Obergefell had been decided. Nonetheless, Hirono continued, she thought Barrett’s use of the phrase “sexual preference” spoke “volumes.” “Sexual preference is an offensive and outdated term,” insisted Hirono. “It is used by anti-LGBTQ activists to suggest that sexual orientation is a choice—it is not.” Barrett immediately apologized if her use of language had been offensive, saying it had certainly not been her intention. (She also held firm that it was not appropriate for her to comment on whether or not she agreed with Obergefell.)

But no wonder Barrett didn’t get the definition right—neither did Merriam-Webster, until Wednesday. As of Tuesday of this week, the dictionary giant listed “ORIENTATION//sexual preference” as the fifth definition of the word “preference.” Then, magically, and literally overnight, the definition changed, with the clarifier “offensive” added before the word “orientation,” in order to signal that yes, some Luddites still used the word “preference” to mean “orientation,” but that was no longer appropriate.

In a statement to FOX, Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski explained that Merriam-Webster makes updates several times a year—adding guidelines for usage, updated example sentences, and even new definitions. “In this case,” Sokolowski continued, “we released the update for sexual preference when we noticed that the entries for preference and sexual preference were being consulted in connection with the SCOTUS hearings.”

Let’s put aside for now whether or not “sexual preference” is offensive or not in comparison with “sexual orientation.” Language changes, and certainly, an organization that exists to define words must keep up with those trends. Language belongs to a people, and it shifts over time as that people shifts. But there is an argument to be made that dictionaries exist to keep language from changing too quickly, from reacting to the whim of the day. This is why, for centuries, careful writers and editors have seen fit to consult a dictionary when deciding on a specific word. Was there really an update planned to the word “preference”? Or did Merriam-Webster react, knee-jerk style, to Sen. Hirono’s accusation to Judge Barrett, and scramble to change the word so as not to appear on the wrong side of the cultural and political divide? We will never know. Certainly, the timing is suspicious, and severely undercuts any confidence that remains in Merriam-Webster’s ability to stay out of politicking.

Also at play is that the Internet has a profound effect upon language, specifically which language is acceptable. The speed with which those changes are occurring is enough to make the head spin. Washington Examiner writer Siraj Hashmi Tweeted this week: ”here are the words that have changed meaning in the last week” and listed the word “preference,” but also the terms “court packing” and “originalism.” These terms now mean “filling a judicial vacancy” and “going back to the days when women and POC were 2nd class citizens,” respectively. Amusing, but also a little true. All it takes for language to shift is for a group of senators to use a term or word in a specific way enough times on C-Span. The biggest bullies win, especially in a world in which the mainstream media actively participates in the bullying by not reporting opposing viewpoints.

And anyone out there who does disagree with the new definition of “preference” had best keep quiet. Cancel Culture will come for you, too.

is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

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