America Wants to Know the Meaning of ‘Transgender’

Merriam-Webster has a new stat: Searches for the word “transgender” spiked intensely on Friday morning:

As the tweet says, Americans’ linguistic curiosity coincides with the Obama administration’s crackdown on discrimination against transgender individuals using bathrooms. They have put together a letter to public-school administrators with guidelines designed to ensure all kids have equal access to restrooms—accompanied by the implicit threat that the federal government might take away funds or sue them if they don’t comply. And earlier this week, U.S. District Attorney Loretta Lynch promised to sue North Carolina over its controversial bathroom bill.

The dictionary pick-up is striking—it shows the way political action can change and influence culture. But culture also shapes political action. As I wrote at the end of April, M-W recently added a bunch of gender-related words to its unabridged dictionary, including transphobia, nonbinary, and cisgender. This was not a political statement, the dictionary’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, told me at the time: “We’re not crusaders for anything but accuracy,” as he put it. Rather, the change represented a lexicographical fact: These words had come into American English usage enough that they needed to be defined by the dictionary. The words entered the dictionary because they had become normal; but entering the dictionary also further solidified their normalness.

That incremental process—cultural change via dictionary update—means the people of the Internet now have one more source for understanding the word “transgender”—and the reason for the current showdown between their federal and state governments. The more the word shows up in political headlines, the more common it will be in American culture. And the more common it is in culture, perhaps, the more American politics will slowly, slowly change.