A participant in the Queer Pride parade in New DelhiAdnan Abidi / Reuters

Last week, Merriam-Webster added a handful of new words to its unabridged dictionary as part of a routine update. Although April’s additions weren’t all related to sexuality and gender, a number of them might have been pulled from a Women and Gender Studies textbook: transphobia, nonbinary, cis, cisgender, genderqueer, gender reassignment, gender-fluid. The word Mx., an honorific sometimes preferred in lieu of Mr. or Mrs., also made the list.

What’s distinctive about these words—more so than some of this year’s other entries, such as Bitcoin and cold case—is that they describe somewhat controversial ideas about the essential nature of gender and sexuality. “We have the North Carolina bathroom bill in the news, and Caitlyn Jenner’s story was such a big part of the national conversation,” said Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large of Merriam-Webster. To the Mississippi legislature—which recently passed a bill which defines “man” and “woman” as “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth”—genderqueer and gender-fluid may not seem like valid concepts that describe the world as they see it. With baritone pronunciation guides and carefully crafted definitions, Merriam Webster has stepped into the middle of America’s culture war.

This is the delicate job of the lexicographer: to watch culture and decide when its words are worth recording. Sometimes, that includes words that describe controversial ideas. “The dictionary is not a political document,” Sokolowski said. With these new gender-related words, “we’re not defining what a person is. We’re defining what the label used to refer to that person is. We’re describing the word and how it’s used in the language.” Because gender and sexuality have been the subject of Supreme Court decisions and Amazon specials in the last several years, newspapers and magazines have been using gender-and-sexuality words more frequently. “That’s the gold standard of lexicography: If a word is likely to be encountered by an adult, it’s time for that word to go into the dictionary,” Sokolowski said.

Word smiths often tussle over the merits of a descriptive versus prescriptive approach to the way people communicate: understanding language as it is used, versus how it should be used. In France, for example, the Académie française determines what is and is not proper usage of the language. In the United States, there’s no such council, and most dictionaries take a firmly descriptivist approach, taking cues from the media and culture at large about what words mean and how their usage has evolved. Merriam-Webster adds words to its unabridged version when they’re deemed to be in frequent, meaningful, and widespread use—they can’t be the pet terms of columnists or larks from Mary Poppins, for example. There is a certain eliteness to their sources, though. Sokolowski said M-W largely looks for new dictionary candidates in “well-edited publications with wide readerships,” rather than the vast churning cesspools of the broader Internet.

In its entries for this year’s new gender-related words, Merriam-Webster dates many to the early ’90s; Sokolowski said it’s common for words to be around for decades before they make their way into the dictionary. “We’re a lag indicator,” he said. “We’re not trying to be avant-garde.” But things have gotten faster, Sokolowski said. Lexicographers used to read publications and mark down usages on little cards as they considered potential dictionary updates, and print used to be “the gold standard.” Now, organizations like M-W use software to scan sources for usage and patterns on the web as well as in print.  

All of this poses a deceptively simple-seeming question: What makes a word real? Before it’s in the dictionary ... what is it? From a technical perspective, “any groups of sounds that carry meaning—that’s a real word,” Sokolowski said. The dictionary can sometimes seem like the ultimate arbiter of language, what with infamous Scalia recitations from the Supreme Court bench and hours of possible debate hidden in every controversially capitalized term. But the dictionary is a book of truth claims only in that it aims to record English as it is used. Definitions, spellings, and usages can evolve, and as with genderqueer and gender queer—which both earned spots on this year’s list—sometimes even definitive entries can be ambiguous.

Still, there’s something meaningful about new words entering the dictionary. “The fact that it is in the dictionary makes a kind of indisputable fact that they are a kind of cultural reality,” Sokolowski said, and “the fact that these words have been coming up recently is because they’re politically possible.” LGBT people are far less marginalized than they were when these words first started getting used. New court decisions and legislation, along with depictions of gay and transgender people in pop culture, have made these Americans, and the words some people use to describe them, far more mainstream. These additions to M-W are less of a lexicographical throw-down about the nature of gender than a marking of how American culture has evolved: Even though these terms might still feel foreign to some, they’re normal enough for even cautious lexicographers to give them a thumbs up. After all, Sokolowski noted, “We’re not crusaders for anything but accuracy.”

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