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

We don't think about the political and social weight of language because we use it everyday to accomplish utilitarian and in the larger scheme, mundane tasks.


A plea of "please, please, please don't tow me" in front of the all powerful Department of Transportation god about to drive away, followed moments later by a thrown curse, "Good-for-nothing subpar arbiter of motor vehicles, may you be condenado in the afterlife to being dismembered by the tow trucks of hell!"

Then there's how words are supposed to help us communicate the deepest desires lodged in our hearts.  But sometimes--often times--they serve to bridge a breach ripped opened between two people: "I'm sorry I wanted too much."

Today, language lives magnified by the revolutionary pace of technology and its impact on broadcasting a message: in the Arab world--where the fires of discontent burn brightly--tweets and Facebook messages are demanding a shot for future generations.  Here, Demi Moore aka @mrskutcher on Twitter (although in real life, she and Ashton said adiós) posted the most post-feminist stance, “changing my twitter name isn't a top priority right now. sorry it bothers so many of u. should I not tweet until I do?does it really matter?”

But, how about the power of words to codify perceptions and set expectations for a whole group of people and the burden of responsibility that leaders, social gatekeepers, that we bear?

That's exactly what is at stake when the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language initially defined in its latest edition "anchor baby" with no context marking that it is a politically and socially loaded term, until public outcry forced a revision.  (Click here to read "SEAL an Anchor Baby? How an Assumption Became Truth (and I'm Not Talking About La Virgen María)" where I criticize some Latinos' misuse of this term as the identity of one of Osama bin Laden's killers was questioned).

Why didn't the American Heritage Dictionary editors include "pejorative" (which they do with hundreds of other words), why did prominent New York Times journalist Bill Keller write a cavalier and snobby blog explaining that he dropped the use of "illegals" as a noun (versus illegal or undocumented immigrants); why do I hear women call others "b*tches", as opposed to, ¡Hey Chicas/Girls/Ladies! and that the "N" word rolls off the tongues of some African-Americans as if this term existed in a vacuum devoid of a dark history?

Don't get p.o.'ed.

Get even (or something like that)...

...which is why I wrote this spot in Latina Magazine on the American Heritage Dictionary "anchor baby" controversy (Click here to read my previous Latina contributions where I write on politics)... educate and inspire others to become more informed and to stand collectively to hold people who should know better accountable.

As it appears in Latina:

"'Anchor Baby': How a Dictionary Definition Became a Political Statement"

By: Viviana Hurtado

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:

“ 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.

To read more of Viviana’s politics pieces in Latinaclick here.

Have you ever caught yourself or called someone out for word choice?