Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Merriam-Webster will not delete slurs

Under pressure to clean up the definition of racial slurs and obscenities, Merriam-Webster said Monday it will reformat entries for about 200 obscenities and "offensive" words in its Collegiate Dictionary.

However the company refused to rewrite the words' definitions.

"As long as the word is in use it is our responsibility as dictionary publishers to put the word into the dictionary," said Deborah Burns, marketing director for Merriam-Webster. "A dictionary is a scholarly reference, not a political tool."

In response to hundreds of complaints, Merriam-Webster set up a task force to consider offensive definitions and whether to change the practice of listing definitions historically, with the oldest _ and often the most objectionable _ uses coming first.

Merriam-Webster will continue to list definitions that way, but will move notes cautioning when certain usages are considered offensive to the front of the entry for that usage, rather than behind it as the company currently does.

And such notes will be printed in italics, Burns said. The changes will begin with next year's dictionary.

The company never considered the removal of offensive and derogatory words from its adult dictionaries.

A Michigan woman who threatened a boycott over the way definitions were organized was unhappy with the changes.

"They didn't change anything. They just switched things around," said Delphine Abraham of Ypsilanti, Mich. She will continue her petition drive that already has collected more than 10,000 signatures.

Abraham, who recently expanded her protest to include the Oxford University Press, wants the publishers to drop references to blacks and other groups targeted by slurs.

Since protests began last October, Merriam-Webster has received more than 2,000 complaints about its handling of slurs and obscenities, Burns said. She said some wanted the words removed from the dictionary and others objected to parts of a definition.

Burns said Merriam-Webster can't do more than "make very, very clear that these words are considered offensive and people should be careful if they choose to use them."