(WATCH) What’s in a Name?

Twentieth-century radical activist Saul Alinsky once wrote, “He who controls the language controls the masses.” Never has that thought been more relevant. Right now, activists are busily working to redefine select words in real time, manipulating meanings to accomplish social and propaganda goals. How they do it and why is the topic of today’s cover story: What’s in a Name?

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of efforts to mold our language — and the confusion and debate that can spark — than the 2022 hearing to nominate Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (March 22, 2022 Congressional hearing): Can you provide a definition for the word “woman”?

Ketanji Brown Jackson (March 22, 2022 Congressional hearing): Can I provide a definition? No. I can’t.

Blackburn (March 22, 2022 Congressional hearing): You can’t?

Jackson (March 22, 2022 Congressional hearing): Not in this context. I’m not a biologist.

Left-leaning USA Today insisted Jackson’s puzzling non-answer was “scientifically sound” and declared, to the surprise of many, “There is no sufficient way to clearly define what makes someone a woman.”

The exchange came as transgender activists worked to blur the once-solid line between male and female. Fierce criticism was building over men participating in women’s sports. William Thomas switched from the men’s to the women’s swim team at the University of Pennsylvania, shattering numerous records as “Lia.”

The spike in online searches for the term “woman” prompted Dictionary.com to declare woman “word of the year,” defining it as “an adult female person.”

Sharyl: Are special interests and advocacy groups able to influence how we define terms today?

Kelly Wright: Absolutely.

If anyone knows about manipulating language, it’s Kelly Wright. You could define her as an experimental sociolinguist and lexicographer. Or

Wright: A word mapper. I look at how words change over time and put them into an official space.

Sharyl: What do you think is the impact on a society when its official record of language and what words mean can change in real time as fast as it’s changing today?

Wright: The impacts, I think, actually end up being rather dire. Because official definitions of language really control the way that our, like, law and policy works. So even something as saying, like “Anyone who’s female-bodied is a woman” really affects how people are incarcerated, how they’re treated in health care, you know, all these things that, that the state has to control. So very small changes in language have huge effects for how, you know, our society is administered.

You might think the purpose of dictionaries is to explain the meanings of words. But they’re frequently used by activists to distort understood definitions and convince people to think differently.

One example is the word “migrant.” For decades, “migrant” commonly referred to foreigners temporarily coming to the U.S.

But now, “migrant” has become widely used to describe all illegal border-crossers. That includes those who intend to permanently live in the U.S. as immigrants or asylum-seekers, as well as criminals, drug dealers, and human traffickers facilitating crime.

The move to redefine “migrant” can be traced to the Trump era and massive efforts to undermine his border security policies.

As late as December of 2016, Dictionary.com listed the common definition of “migrant”: “A person who moves from place to place to get work, especially a farm laborer who harvests crops seasonally.” But by May of 2017, with President Trump in the White House, there’s suddenly a brand-new definition of “migrant”: ”A person who attempts to permanently relocate to a new country, but who may be subject to removal by the government of that country.”

Sharyl: “Illegal immigrant” was used for a long time. And people suddenly start to use “migrant” for the same thing. So do you feel as though there might have been a directed effort to change that term by somebody, and then it got picked up by the dictionaries?

Wright: I do, because I think, I don’t know if it was an individual, you know, it might be more reflective of, you know, a way of thinking or, you know, a handful of folks.

What may be more remarkable is how that “handful of folks” can convince the rest of us to adopt the language of advocacy, even when inaccurate.

“Transphobic” is used to disparage people not fully-aligned with the transgender agenda, even when they aren’t actually “phobic” about or fearful of trans people.

“Anti-vaccine” is frequently used as a slur against people who aren’t, in fact, against vaccines. The term was almost unheard of until 2008, when it was popularized by pharmaceutical industry allies and media, amid growing vaccine safety concerns.

CDC used to define vaccines as agents that “prevent disease.” But after it was clear that Covid vaccines don’t do that, CDC invented a new definition that makes them seem successful anyway. Now, vaccines, CDC says, merely “stimulate the body’s immune response.”

Wright: And then, you know, we can look at everything having to do with gender. That’s pronouns and how people are trying to apply equity and how it, in different institutions, comes out in different ways in the wash.

For example, “gender confirmation” is widely used to describe a process that some would say is actually “gender denial”: changing appearance to live life as the opposite sex.

“Women’s reproductive rights” is used in place of “abortion rights,” even though it typically doesn’t refer to the right to bear children or reproduce.

Wright: I think that that change had a lot to do with the efforts a handful of years ago to close, like, every Planned Parenthood in the world, and they — Planned Parenthood — and their lobbying arm, which is quite strong, made an effort to say, “We don’t just provide abortions, we provide women’s reproductive care.” So in sometimes redefining, you know, it’s like a rebrand.

Sharyl: I saw an article in Medscape: “Should We Rename Obesity?” And talking about a stigma with obesity and thinking maybe we shouldn’t discourage it or make it sound bad?

Wright: Sure. “James and the Giant Peach,” new editions of that were put out in this last year because they removed the word “fat” from the story. It’s like, how can we talk about James and Giant Peach without talking about fatness? We can change the word obesity, but until we change the way we feel about fat people, whatever new label we give it is gonna function the same way.

Sharyl: I’ve noticed that instead of saying somebody “committed suicide,” there’s an effort to say, or have people say they “died by suicide.” Which I find hard to figure out because it almost sounds like something happened to them outside of their control.

Wright: Exactly. “Died by suicide” is something in the same realm of, like, person first language where people accept that, like, anyone who gets to the point of killing themselves is probably, is likely dealing with mental illness. That’s what I think what “died by suicide” is trying to recognize. But I agree with you, it’s quite difficult to apply it that way because it’s not something that happens to you; it’s something you do.

So how exactly are a relative few able to influence the vocabulary of the masses? One way is through members of the boards that put dictionaries together and write the definitions.

Wright serves on the board of a dictionary called “Among The New Words” with the American Dialect Society.

Wright: People with certain expertise do, like, certain sections of the dictionary.

Sharyl: Is it possible for advocates to get board members placed on these dictionary boards?

Wright: Absolutely.

More influence comes by activists directly contacting dictionaries to persuade them.

Sharyl: It strikes me that those, who may actually be in the majority of our society, who prefer to preserve a term in certain, as used in certain cases, don’t really stand a chance against those who are trying to change a term.

Wright: I’ll just say, from like a professional, you know, perspective, we deal with that in our dictionary a lot actually, because the only people who engage with us are people who are advocating for a certain cause, who say, “We want this word in. This is why.” The general public maybe isn’t motivated to change language or to make it seem official the ways in which language is changing.

Sharyl: Or to lobby you to keep it the same.

Wright: Or to lobby us to keep it the same, which we would listen to.

Our final example looks at the evolving definition of “female,” which — like “woman” — has been the subject of heavy lobbying.

In 2016, Dictionary.com told us a female is “A person bearing two X chromosomes in the cell nuclei and normally having a vagina, a uterus and ovaries, and retaining a beardless face.” Today, Dictionary.com has decided being female is no longer genetic or biological. It’s “relating to a gender identity that corresponds to a complex, variable set of social and cultural roles, traits, and behaviors”

Wright says if there’s one takeaway to the molding of our language, it’s that your interpretations are as important as anybody else’s — if only you’d weigh in. And there’s no law saying we’re required to use or accept certain definitions.

Wright: I think that this idea that, you know, seeing a handful of people or an individual like move language or like legally change language in a way that changes your life, I think shows us how powerful it is. And in a way that we shouldn’t hide or resist our ideas even if they’re at odds with others. It’s worth expressing them.

Sharyl (on-camera): So how exactly can you weigh in? The American Dialect Society and most dictionaries have forms you can fill out online to suggest words or comment on definitions. At Dictionary.com, you can find it by clicking “Contact us” on the website.

Watch video here.

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