Dictionary Rewrites Definition Of "Anchor Baby"

By Jude Joffe-Block
December 07, 2011

LAS VEGAS -- Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary have rewritten the definition of a controversial entry. The term "anchor baby" was among 10,000 new words added to the dictionary in November, but its original definition sparked criticism.

In response to the concerns of immigrant rights advocates, dictionary editors revised the definition for anchor baby on Monday to indicate that it is derogatory language. The term is typically used derisively to describe children who are U.S. citizens whose parents are born to unauthorized immigrants.

On Nov. 13, American Heritage Dictionary Executive Editor, Steve Kleinedler, went on NPR's Weekend Edition to talk about the new words appearing in the fifth edition of his dictionary. He read the original definition for anchor baby on the air, which was neutral in tone.

A child born to a non-citizen 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 their family.

The term is used in anti-immigrant rhetoric, but the dictionary's definition did not indicate that. Kleinedler said in the interview that his team intentionally tried to be objective and not take sides when defining politically charged words like anchor baby.

Photo courtesy greeblie/Flickr.
The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary published in November included "anchor baby" for the first time.

"It falls into a gray area where we felt it was better just to state what it was,” Kleinedler said on air. “And then people can filter their own life experiences through the word and judgments on it as they see fit."

Mary Giovagnoli, the director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C. heard Kleinedler's radio interview. She thought he had made a mistake by not flagging the term as a slur.

"To treat the term as neutral without putting any kind of a label such as offensive or derogatory, struck me as misleading and not really in keeping with the precision and integrity that you would want to have in a dictionary," Giovagnoli said.

She wrote about the issue in a Dec. 2 post on her organization's blog, Immigration Impact, which discusses immigrant rights issues. Soon after, she said she heard directly from Kleinedler to discuss revising his first definition.

Kleindeler said in an interview with USA Today that it was Giovagnoli's blog post that convinced him to change the definition.

As of Monday afternoon, the online version of the American Heritage Dictionary has this definition for anchor baby:

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.

The revised version sits well with Giovagnoli, who was pleased by how responsive the editors were to her concerns.

"The new definition does a much better job of really placing the term in context," she said.

In a statement emailed to the Fronteras Desk, editor Steve Kleinedler wrote: "(The) term is now treated similarly to how the dictionary treats a wide range of slurs. The editorial staff stands behind the revision."