A Question of Definitions

A short post this week, I promise!1 Last week, whilst riffing on Labour’s dog-whistle racism (which seems to have had no effect on their polling, so well done that team for letting down the Left and failing to get the racists onboard; quality job, well done!), I mentioned briefly how many people became experts on racism last week simply by reaching for their dictionaries.

As you should know, I am a philosopher, and philosophers rarely use dictionary definitions to win arguments.2 So, when people reached for their dictionaries to prove that Phil Twyford’s framing of the housing crisis in Auckland wasn’t actually racist, I rolled my eyes. Dictionary definitions are not the be-all and end-all of debate, and if you know anything about language, then you will know that dictionary definitions cannot be considered absolute, complete or even up-to-date.

Let’s look at the definition of racism. Here’s OS X’s built in definition of racism:

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Now, that’s a fairly standard short dictionary definition. Compare it to the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

That’s a better definition, but it does not capture the way in which racism is often used these days, which is in terms of systems and institutions. You need to look up “institutional racism” to get the following definition:

racial discrimination occurring habitually or customarily within a society or organization

That was a draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, which means it is not yet part of the main definition of a particular word, in this case, “institutional”. Note that; even though the defintion is about a form of racism, the maintainers of the dictionary think that the definition should be tagged to the word “institutional”, so even when “institutional racism” enters the Oxford English Dictionary, it will be effectively hidden and not part of the definition of what qualifies as a kind of racism.

Now, I don’t think that getting the defintion of institional racism built into “racism” will solve many, if any problems. People who are offended by the idea that racism can be more than interpersonal bigotry or prejudice will either stop reaching for their dictionaries or claim there is some agenda in changing the “essential” meaning of the word. No one is going to reach for their dictionary and then upon reading a definition go “Oh, wait, hold on a minute… Okay, no, I’m wrong; you’re right!” That never happens. However, talk of institutional racism is part of how people use the term “racism” and “racist” these days, and going to a dictionary and saying “No, you’re wrong” doesn’t prove a thing.

Modern dictionaries describe common usage, and a notable problem in that project is the lag between contemporary usage and when a term actually makes it into the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary has had, in draft form, “institional racism” on the books for nine years now, and it’s still not teachnically in the printed versions of those dictionaries people reach for. Nine years means the term has been in use for quite a while, since “new” meanings only make it into the dictionary once they are demonstrably in use and commonplace.

Being called “racist” or having a position you agree with described as “racist” can be unsettling, particularly if you refuse to counterance the idea that racism can be systemic and institional (and thus sometimes something you implicitly agree to) rather than exlicit prejudice. However, reaching for a dictionary and telling people “No, racism is…” does nothing to undermine the claim that your view or position is potentially problematic. Dictionary definitions should never be argument stoppers. The final word in what a term means is never a dictionary. Common usage decides that. Dictionaries certainly are evidence of common usage, but even the maintainers of said dictionaries know that by the time a word makes it into a dictionary, it’s likely already in the process of taking on new and interesting meanings.

Talking about dictionaries, in the process of writing this blogpost my computer’s dictionary decided that the word “draft” was not in its dictionary. Weird, huh?


  1. Mostly because I have something else I need to write today.
  2. Instead, we tend to like to completely redefine words to suit our arguments, and then go “Oh, but you don’t really mean x when you say x; you actually mean y…”

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.