American Heritage Editor on ‘Anchor Baby’ Definition: ‘We Were Wrong’

Monica Novoa sits down with American Heritage Dictionary's Executive Editor Steve Kleinedler to discuss the why and how they chose to define one of today's most hot-button slurs.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Dec 07, 2011

Recently, controversy erupted over the American Heritage dictionary’s definition of "anchor baby" as a neutral term. Jorge Rivas gave us an overview earlier this week. The act prompted immigrant rights advocates to reach out for institutional change. Here’s how the dictionary’s new edition originally defined "anchor baby:"

"Anchor Baby, n. 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 their family."

Mary Giovagnoli, the Director of the Immigration Policy Center pushed back on the term’s definition, acknowledging that it’s politically loaded language and not neutral. She’s right. The term is racially charged and hurtful, much like the term "illegal immigrant," which Giovagnoli ironically did use in her piece. It’s no surprise that dehumanizing and criminalizing people by describing them as "illegal immigrants" has paved the way for "anchor baby," which suggests that supposedly "illicit" people who have families and settle down are conniving and dangerous. 

Communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio reminded a group of us that historically, immigrants have been dehumanized through water imagery. According to this logic, there are threatening "waves of immigrants" who are "flooding" the country. Now, it’s "anchor babies" who have planted themselves onto American soil. Victor Goode wrote for last year about the fight over birthright citizenship, and we covered how coded language is central to that racially charged debate.

I followed up with Steve Kleinedler, Executive Editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, who at the time of our conversation, was in the process of changing the "anchor baby" definition in consultation with the people at Immigration Impact. The new definition reflects push back from advocates:

"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."

Here’s more of what Kleinedler had to tell us.

A lot of people would agree that the objective thing to do would be to present the term as it is. How do you think the term came to feel objective?

If you’re referring to my original NPR quote, what I was trying to say and what I said badly — honestly, at the time I thought the term was marked "offensive" — I was referring to the language used in the definition itself. When we say things are "derogatory" or "offensive," we do it via this labeling system. The issue of it being offensive is something that would fall to the label, as opposed to being an integral part of the definition.

It’s well documented by journalists and people labeled with the term that the phrase "anchor baby" has been pushed out by anti-immigrant actors to pass anti-immigrant, anti-birthright legislation. This is central to that language. Will those facts be in the new definition or would you simply do away with it?

For terms such as these where they are part of a belief system, whether it’s intelligent design or ethnic cleansing or that kind of thing, within the definition is the phrase "is believed to be" or words of that nature. Those qualifiers indicate this is part of a belief system by some, and that in conjunction with the offensive label, will show readers it’s an offensive term and part of certain people’s belief systems.

For example, if you take a look at a word like "genocide" which is obviously a reprehensible act, the definition says what it is, rather than convey people’s thoughts about genocide. So in defining "anchor baby" we would be explaining how and what it is conceived to be.

We recently added the word "truther", and we define it as one who believes that the government or another powerful agency is conspiring to conceal the truth about its role in an event such as an assassination or an act of terrorism, such as the 9/11 attacks.

So could the term, for instance, be simply defined as a slang phrase used to dehumanize the children of non-citizens born in the United States with a political aim to legitimize the call to do away with birthright citizenship?

It’s a very sticky issue. Not this in particular, just defining in general. The way to go might be using language like what we use for certain single [slur] words like "faggot" or "spic" they are defined as "used as a disparaging term for." So we have that language at our disposal to preface. The word "anchor baby" does not mean an attitude, it reflects an attitude, but it cannot be defined as an attitude. "Faggot", for example, is used as a disparaging term for a person as opposed to "a disparaging term used by homophobic people." We have to define what the term is as opposed to who’s using it. That’s just lexicographical tradition.

The term is racially charged and that context is lacking in the definition. What was the process by which you decided this is the year that anchor baby has to make it into the dictionary?

"Anchor baby" received a lot of play in the media a couple years ago. Here’s one of our criteria: not only was it being used on the national stage, but when journalists were using it, while using the term, they were not explaining what it meant. For example, sometimes you’ll see people using phrases or words and then explain what it means. If they have to give a definition, while talking about it, that’s an indication that it’s not a common word.

But once journalists and the like start throwing out a word without explanation, they are assuming that people will know what it means, and that’s the type of thing that people will go and look up in a dictionary. At that point it entered our radar and we felt there had been enough discussion of it in the political scene to warrant its inclusion.

It’s in our large 2100 page dictionary. We publish smaller abridged versions that don’t include obscenities or slurs. The dictionary is a reflection of society and obviously the sociological implications are: Why is this term being used in society? The answers being: xenophobia, racism and all other things that go with anti-immigration policies. Sadly that is the state of our nation and our world. All we’re doing is holding a mirror up to it.

People most impacted by the term are not happy about it. Why include the term?

It is a sad fact that there are terms in our society that just suck. We are not the people who invented the term, but we are following up on how people have used the term. As a gay man, am I happy about words like "faggot" and what-not? No. "Faggot" is in the dictionary because it is a word people use. [Anchor baby] is something that we would not take out because it is a term people will look up if they come across it. It’s not a pretty term, but it unfortunately exists.

The concept itself has been found to be a myth when you look at immigration law and petitioning of parents and also how long it takes for immigrants to start families. It’s misleading, not just a slur. How will you address that?

This is something that was reiterated by Immigration Impact and this is where certain wording really helps to show that something hinges upon a belief system. Personally, this was not a reaction that we have to fix it because people are angry. We fixed it because we were wrong. And I, as the executive editor, acknowledge the fact that this was an error and I take responsibility for that. And that is also why I am quick to fix it because I believe it needs to be fixed and I stand behind that.