Why Dictionary.com will no longer use 'slave' as a noun to describe people: 'It's dehumanizing'

Erin Donnelly
·3 min read
Dictionary.com will no longer use the word
Dictionary.com will no longer use the word "slave" as a noun to identify a person. (Photo: Getty Creative)

As part of its ongoing efforts to feature language that is more inclusive and reflective of modern-day society, Dictionary.com will no longer include the word "slave" as a noun identifying a person, instead using the adjective "enslaved" or referencing the institution of slavery. The change is one of 7,600 updates the online resource has announced, which also include the addition of terms relevant to race, social justice and identity, such as "BIPOC" (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and "Critical Race Theory."

The latest updates — which also include capitalizing "Indigenous" when referring to people, and adding entries for "racialization," "disenfranchisement" and "overpolice" — follow those announced last September. That round of revisions saw the capitalization of the word Black in reference to people, and the addition of terms relevant to mental health (specifically, suicide and addiction) and LGBTQ identity. John Kelly, managing editor of Dictionary.com, tells Yahoo Life that the changes are an important part of respecting the power of language and its ability to offer representation and dignity.

"We have a responsibility as a dictionary," he says. "We know how words are entering the dictionary, how they're defined — especially those words that concern our social identities, our racial identities, other marginalized identities — we know that this has real effects on real people in the real world. The dictionary can feel abstract, but how words, and how people, are reflected in the dictionary does have real effects."

Kelly cites Dictionary.com's entry on Harriet Tubman as a "powerful example of this change."

"Our old, very outdated definition described her as "U.S. abolitionist, escaped slave and leader of the Underground Railroad"... but what is the effect of calling Tubman an escaped slave?" he notes. "It's dehumanizing. It's dehumanizing to her, it's dehumanizing to all of those people who were subjected to chattel slavery, It takes away her agency and does not hold enslavers accountable."

Tubman is now identified as having "escaped slavery," an edit which Kelly calls "subtle" but "profound." He adds that the new policy regarding "slave" has involved revisions to entries such as "mistress," "master," "Juneeteenth," "plantation" and "Black Code," as well as biographical entries.

"With these changes, we're striving to show respect and dignity to people and how they're represented in our dictionary," Kelly says. "And it's a responsibility we take seriously. It's a privilege. We're proud to get to put people first in all their humanity. That's our thinking behind this change."

Kelly acknowledges that, given the uproar over recent actions taking on racism, such as the Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision to cease publishing six of the author's problematic books, Dictionary.com's revisions may get some backlash. It's a chance he's willing to take.

"I know that there has been some chatter in certain media outlets that have criticized or raised their eyebrows at these changes as a way of fanning the flames of culture wars," Kelly says. "We'll take that backlash because we're making the right choice here. We're striving to put people first and to give them the respect and the dignity they deserve. So if people want to criticize it as cancel culture or wokeness or being too progressive, we'll take that heat because we're making a choice to put people first. That's non-negotiable for us as a dictionary."

Not all of the updates are tied to race. The latest round of updates also include a rundown of dog breeds (see: "goldendoodle") and terms relevant to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown life ("superspreader," "telework" and "flatten the curve").

Related: Dictionary.com adds words on race, gender, mental health in update

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