Our VoiceCulture

Nativists Now Mad They Can’t Deport the Dictionary


Brian Schultz • Dec 15, 2011

photo taken from music FIRST coalition's flickr page

Established in the sixties, the American Heritage Dictionary originally set out to address what its founders lamented as excessively lenient standards in other dictionaries, and it gained a reputation for its traditionalist resistance to new words and usages. It comes as a surprise, then, that it all too quickly relinquished this patent discipline, including the term “anchor baby” to its latest edition without disclosing the words’ obviously offensive nature. Though its executive editor, Steve Kleinedler, acknowledged the term’s apparent “political charge” in a November 13 interview, he insisted that the AHD chose its definition “objectively [and] without taking sides”; this, however, neglected the term’s contentious origin: a nativist invective to advance anti-immigrant sentiment.

Needless to say, after the decisive backlash it garnered, Kleinedler redacted his erstwhile “objectivity” and stated that a disclaimer, “either derogatory or offensive,” would be inserted into the definition, admitting that this “should have been done in the first place.” Indeed, it should have; but AHD still deserves credit for making good on its deleterious misstep.

Nonetheless, you can’t please everyone, and the querulous anti-immigrant movement unsurprisingly mobilized against the revision. First evidenced in a vehement op-ed written by Bob Dane, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), nativists accused the AHD of toadying before a powerful lobby of arch-liberals who aim to stymie free-speech. Says Dane, “By politicizing the term ‘anchor baby’ and making a moral judgment about its use, the American Heritage Dictionary has become willing partner in the illegal alien lobby’s quest to […] stifle debate.” As though it hadn’t already been fully “politicized,” the nativists seem to think that a term ridiculing children for having undocumented parents is neutral.

This isn’t a surprise for Bob Dane, whose employer, FAIR, was founded by the white nationalist John Tanton. Dane himself has vividly illustrated instances in which profiling might become acceptable, such as during traffic stops: “[a car] might be loaded with nine people who speak no English, have no driver’s licenses […] and maybe only Mexican consular cards or Gold’s Gym cards. At that point […] asking about immigration status is warranted.”

And he wasn’t the only figure to speak out; Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies—another organization founded by John Tanton—stated that he “know[s] lots of people who use it [‘anchor baby’] in a non-disparaging fashion. There really isn’t a shorthand way of describing people like this.” This comes from a man who thought that Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s name wasn’t pronounced “Anglo” enough—perhaps not the most qualified judge of linguistic issues.

William Gheen, indignant hysteric of the anti-immigrant movement, added that the “future of the United States is a place where you cannot speak your mind freely,” then lamenting the enigmatic “thought police” who evidently persecute him. But Gheen’s vision for the country is an emphatically “White America,” for the preservation of which he has advocated “violent” and “extra-political” activities against the extensive wire-tapping and internet surveillance to which he claims the government has subjected his ilk.

Dane, Krikorian, and Gheen make it painfully clear that they are not linguists; they are nothing more than petty ideologues, clearly incapable of contributing to our reference works in any substantial manner. Perhaps they should stick to their shrill procession of complaints (they’re so good at it) and leave the scholarship to the American Heritage Dictionary.

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