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  • Defining "anchor baby"

    The American Heritage Dictionary, responding to criticism in what may well be record time for any dictionary, dramatically revised its recently-published definition of "anchor baby" to mark the term as offensive.

    The brand new fifth edition of the American Heritage, published just over a month ago, on Nov. 1, defined anchor baby as

    A child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and often other members of the family.

    anchor baby original definition

    A screenshot of the unrevised definition of anchor baby from the American Heritage Dictionary iPhone app.

    Soon after publication, American Heritage editor Steve Kleinedler told NPR’s Audie Cornish that the dictionary tries to handle controversial terms as neutrally as possible: “The trick is to define them objectively without taking sides and just presenting what it is.” To illustrate, Kleinedler said that the politically-charged anchor baby “falls into a gray area where we felt it was better just to state what it was, and then people can filter their own life experiences through the word and judgments on it as they see fit” (Weekend Edition Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011).

    That insistence on neutrality is odd, given that advising readers how to use the words they’re looking up has always been a major selling point for the American Heritage Dictionary, whose initial goal was to provide an alternative to the neutral definitions and the de-emphasis on usage advice that critics objected to in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961). Definitions in American Heritage are full of do's and don't's, and the dictionary's “usage panel” freely articulates rules of language that it expects us all to abide by.

    But it turns out that American Heritage’s definition of anchor baby is not neutral after all. Instead anchor baby is a term with a right-wing slant taken directly from the playbook of so-called American immigration reformers. These xenophobes either coined the phrase or adopted it in their campaign to portray newcomers to America, historically viewed by immigrants as the land of opportunity, as, well, opportunists. Anchor baby is negative, and it’s been negative since its birth.

    As early as 1997, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR, they call themselves, without a trace of irony), argued that “immigrant families…conceive ‘anchor babies’ so they can remain in this country and collect benefits” (Providence Journal-Bulletin, Jan. 7, 1997), and on its website FAIR expands that definition, using the passive voice to disguise the fact that they’re the ones defining the term:

    An anchor baby is defined as an offspring of an illegal immigrant or other non-citizen, who under current legal interpretation becomes a United States citizen at birth. These children may instantly qualify for welfare and other state and local benefit programs.

    An earlier phrase, anchor children, possibly coined by aid workers in Hong Kong around 1991, referred specifically to Vietnamese refugee children, and may have been the inspiration for anchor baby:

    Government officials and aid workers are dismayed by the surge in Vietnamese children coming to Hong Kong without parents or close relatives. More than 400 children, half of them girls, landed in the first four months of this year. Known as “anchor” children, aid workers say the youngsters are put on boats by families who hope they’ll be resettled in the United States or Canada and can then apply to have their families join them.

    [Toronto Star, June 2, 1991; emphasis added.]

    Immigration activist Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center, charged on Dec. 2 that American Heritage’s definition of anchor baby is negative and insulting, and her blog post led Kleinedler to revise that definition the very next day, marking anchor baby as offensive in the same way that the dictionary marks other charged racial terms.

    While it’s too late to change the print dictionary, in the age of online lexicogaphy a usage label can be added with a few taps of the keyboard, and as of Dec. 8, the revised entry in the American Heritage Dictionary online now reads, 

    anchor baby revised definition

    The revised definition of anchor baby now reads, “Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially when the child's birthplace is thought to have been chosen in order to improve the mother's or other relatives’ chances of securing eventual citizenship."

    Predictably, FoxNews ran a story on American Heritage’s revision of the definition that cited critics who accuse the dictionary of pandering to the left-wing agenda. Fox quotes Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, “[An anchor baby] is a child born to an illegal immigrant.” Krikorian goes on to insist, “I know lots of people who use it in a non-disparaging fashion.” (The Center for Immigration Studies has a neutral-sounding name, but the organization is devoted to closing American borders, not studying immigration.)

    Fox also quotes FAIR spokesperson Bob Dane, who insists that anchor baby is a neutral term that should be defined neutrally: “It’s a descriptive term, but what’s offensive about ‘anchor baby’ isn’t the term, but the practice of having a baby on our soil to game the system.”

    Such citations actually demonstrate that anchor baby is not a neutral term at all, but a negative one. Instead of proving that the dictionary is just another pinko rag, the authorities quoted by FoxNews, together with a citation search that yields few if any neutral uses of the phrase and none that are complimentary, more than justify the decision by American Heritage to label anchor baby as ‘offensive.’ This is responsible lexicogaphy, not spin control. 

    In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined lexicographer as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge." It should provide some consolation to Steve Kleinedler and everyone else engaged in lexicography today that defining words remains, not drudgery at all, but an activity that is important, controversial, and harmful if it's not done well.  

    Samuel Johson's definition of lexicographer

    Dr. Johnson defines a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge." But if lexicography done wrong was truly harmless, then defining words well wouldn't be worth doing. 




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