"Anchor Baby": When a Dictionary Definition Makes a Political Statement

Millions of words roll off our tongues every day. We often times don’t think about the power of words, specifically the legitimacy we give a political position or social statement with the terms we choose to use. That is, until a scandal breaks.

Exhibit A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language added “anchor baby,” along with 10,000 other words and phrases, to its latest edition.  The term was initially defined as:

“A child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and often other members of their family.”

When NPR’s Weekend Edition asked executive editor Steve Kleinedler about the process of deciding which new words make it in, he answered that the “trick” is:

“...to define them objectively without taking sides and just presenting what it is.  And, in some cases up, you know, anchor baby is definitely a very charged, politically charged word...It falls into a gray area where we felt it was better just to state what it was, and then people can filter their own life experiences through the word and judgments on it as they see fit.” 

The blogosphere exploded with criticism, led by advocates of immigration reform. They argue that The American Heritage Dictionary provided no political context which has given birth to the term “anchor baby,” as well as a movement to change the fourteenth constitutional amendment to deny children citizenship born here of undocumented parents, and tough laws restricting illegal immigration in Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama.  Mary Giovagnoli, the director of the non-profit American Immigration Council, forcefully argued that by not including in the definition “pejorative” or other markers dictionary editors add to hundreds of words, readers are misled into believing that this term is not just common, but OK. 

“What is particularly disturbing about this new definition is that it confuses popularity of a term with neutrality,” Giovagnoli writes. “While the term anchor baby has skyrocketed in usage in the last decade, that usage appears to be spurred by the general explosion of anti-immigrant rhetoric, blogs, and other media outlets. Objective reporters tend to put the phrase in quotations, to indicate that the term is a loaded one.”

Within one week, The American Heritage Dictionary changed the definition.  Notice the night and day difference:

“Anchor Baby: n. Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially when the child's birthplace is thought to have been chosen in order to improve the mother's or other relatives' chances of securing eventual citizenship.”

Does language exist in a vacuum divorced from politics, interests, and prejudices?  The American Heritage Dictionary “anchor baby” definition incident suggests not just that language is loaded, but that all of us--leaders, institutions, social gatekeepers, family, friends--have a responsibility to use words knowing their social, political, and real repercussions.