How does technology keep up with ever-evolving language on race and identity? We asked people who write dictionaries

·5 min read

The Rolodex of terms that can describe identity seems to expand and change on a steady basis. So, how do dictionaries both physical and online keep up? Sometimes they don’t.

The term “BIPOC” meaning Black, Indigenous and people of colour, has become the topic of many explainers since June, when this year’s racial reckoning began after George Floyd’s death. According to the New York Times, BIPOC was first used on social media by a Toronto-based account in 2013. Yet the date stamp on Merriam-Webster’s entry for “BIPOC” is just Sept. 3, 2020, and Google has yet to generate its own dictionary landing at the top of search.

It took some time for the word “racialized” to move from academic papers to colloquial use. Even as it has become more common, it’s a toss up if it can be typed out free of a crimson spell check flag depending on the online browser or platform being used.

And according to Merriam Webster’s online time traveller tool, which shows the year words were first recorded, “genderqueer” first appeared in 1995, but when typed into the messaging app Slack, it generates a red underline.

Kory Stamper is a New Jersey-based lexicographer and author of the book “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.” Stamper said that the challenge is that many English-speaking countries have set up the dictionary as an authority on language, which is not the case.

“As a lexicographer, you’re always way behind. You’re basically behind (language), picking up the crumbs, so that you can follow where it’s heading,” she said. Dictionaries record a snapshot of language at a particular time, she adds.

Even for words that are age-old but in need of updating, it’s still a process. Stamper once had to update the definition for “god” which hadn’t been updated in 60 years when she was an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. It took her four months.

For a term like “BIPOC” to enter the dictionary, it has to come across a lexicographer’s desk, have a good amount of printed uses, and is ultimately a subjective decision of that worker and the dictionary, if it’s widely used enough to make the cut. And from there, a lot of thought consideration and research is required to make sure that the definition crafted is nuanced and does the word justice.

But just because a word hasn’t made it through this process, doesn’t mean it’s not a real word or accepted term.

“Just because a word is not in the dictionary, does not mean it is not a word,” Stamper said. “That just means that a lexicographer has not found enough evidence or the production cycle has not moved quickly enough (for it to be entered).” If two people are having a conversation, and they understand the meaning of the words they are using, they are using real words, she said.

Still Stamper thinks about what out-of-date tech and dictionaries can mean for people who aren’t native English speakers.

Once, she typed out “person of colour” and got a grammar suggestion which recommended “coloured person,” a phrase that has long gone out of fashion and leans more offensive, in North America today.

Stamper said that while she and a good amount of people are aware that “people of colour” isn’t grammatically incorrect, and is a fixed phrase, she still thinks of people who may be learning English as a foreign language and may be heavily reliant on these prompts. “Would I have enough knowledge of the nuances of the language to know?”

As for the spell check inconsistencies, Vancouver-based software engineer Dawn Chandler notes that tech companies don’t all refer to the same dictionaries or data sets to operate these tools. Nor do they publicly share exactly what those algorithms are.

There would always be a chance of a lag or bias depending on where the data is being collected from, Chandler said. “Dictionaries are written to record and reflect the language people use.” Still, she said, “they can’t capture languages in every region, in every subculture.”

Kola Tubosun is a linguist currently based in the U.K. who created an online dictionary of Yoruba names after noticing that computers often red-underlined common Yoruba names, and also disregarded tonal accents necessary to write them correctly. He advocates for Nigerian languages to be more accessible and recognized through tech. He’s noticed, for example, that in Nigeria, ATMs are usually only in English, which ends up discouraging Nigerians who only speak local dialects from using banks.

Tubosun does note that media in North America, whether publications or dictionaries, do pay attention to new words, new ways of speaking, the language, the interpretation.

One instance he’s noticed where there can be tech and dictionary gaps in English, are in cultural colloquialisms. A phrase like “see you next tomorrow” which is commonly used in Nigerian culture and means “the day after tomorrow” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020. But with or without the dictionary recognition, it is still a phrase with a fixed meaning.

“There are many levels in which words get adopted and accepted,” he said.

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star