Inventing words is easy. Shakespeare did it all the time: Generous but useful estimates say he published an admirable 400-plus new words, though some misquote a figure as monumental as in the thousands. (On the unquestioned list of words he invented: generous, useful, published, admirable, misquote, monumental, unquestioned.)
But what if you want to eliminate a word from the lexicon — or at least mothball it with one of those “archaic” labels in the dictionary? It’s hard to say what kind of challenge that is.
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But this Pride Month, the Trump administration seems determined to find out.
Over 2½ years, the administration has worked hard to scrub words related to diversity and inclusion from official government documents. Within hours of Donald Trump’s inauguration, WhiteHouse.gov and the Labor Department eliminated references to LGBT rights. In 2017 the Department of Health and Human Services eliminated a question from its survey of older Americans asking about sexual orientation and gender identity, as did the U.S. Census. Later that same year HHS forbade its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using the words diversity or transgender, among others. After the Justice Department unilaterally removed civil rights protections for transgender Americans, HHS endeavored to remove the word transgender altogether by establishing a legal definition of sex: male or female only, and unchangeable. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson might not know about REOs, but he’s well aware of inclusive, a word he deleted from HUD’s mission statement.
Naming is a kind of validation, and therefore unnaming is an invalidation. If we invalidate certain Americans, will we not see them anymore? For this administration, that looks like the goal.
Adding words is always louder, splashier, more controversial. Whenever Merriam-Webster publishes its lists of new words or definitions, hardened prescriptivists get all in a lather about the lexicon changing too quickly. True story: In 2007 I attended a copy-editing workshop, and many people in the room couldn’t accept to google as a verb. (I was also the only person who found this fact hilarious.) The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster both added it in 2006; “too soon!” the copy desks cried.
But the death of words tends to be much quieter. They slowly fall into disuse; if someone notices, the dictionary might slap an “archaic” or “obsolete” next to the entry; and eventually the word is removed to make room for some bro-tacular abomination like marg (the world’s most unnecessary abbreviation, for margarita).
Fortunately, words disappear from lack of attention, not obsessive deletion. We must pay heed when words are omitted, especially if nefarious purposes are afoot.
But as Shakespeare suggests in Hamlet, transgender, diversity, and others won’t vanish just because the Trump administration wants them to: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below,” King Claudius says. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”