Told  /  Etymology

The Evolution of 'Racism'

A look at how the word, a surprisingly recent addition to the English lexicon, made its way into the dictionary.

When Merriam-Webster published the second edition of its unabridged New International Dictionary, in 1934, racism was nowhere to be found. The editors did include another, related term, which was more popular at the time: racialism, defined as “racial characteristics, tendencies, prejudices, or the like; spec., race hatred.” But racism was not yet on the radar of the lexicographers diligently at work at Merriam-Webster’s Springfield, Massachusetts, office.

That all changed thanks to a perceptive observation by one member of the editorial staff named Rose Frances Egan. Egan, a graduate of Syracuse and Columbia who studied the history of aesthetics, came on board as an assistant editor for the second edition of the New International Dictionary. She was also tasked with writing entries for Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms, which she worked on for several years before its first edition was published in 1942.

A handwritten slip tucked away in Merriam-Webster’s archive tells the story. (Before the advent of email, interoffice communication among the editors in Springfield would typically be carried out by exchanging notes on pink slips of paper, still known affectionately as “the pinks.”) This particular slip, dated November 1, 1938, was written by Egan, who asked a fellow editor, John P. Bethel, about the status of the word racism. “Has this term been entered in the addenda?” Egan asked Bethel. “I wanted to use it in a ds. and find that it is not in W. ’34.”

John Morse, a former president and publisher at Merriam-Webster, guided me through the obscure in-house notations on the slip with the eagerness of an Egyptologist deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Egan knew that there was no racism entry in the 1934 Webster’s New International but was inquiring whether it was slated for future printings as part of the Addenda, the section in the front of the dictionary for new words that came to the editors’ attention too late for inclusion in the main text. When Egan said she wanted to use it in a “ds.,” that was short for discriminated synonym, the term of art for the items considered in the entries of the Dictionary of Synonyms that Egan was hard at work drafting. Any word used in a secondary work like the synonym dictionary, according to Merriam-Webster policy, should also be found in the flagship unabridged dictionary.

Sure enough, when the Dictionary of Synonyms was first published a few years later, it included an entry with the word racism in it. A paragraph teasing apart the differences between the words citizen, subject, and national included this sentence: “There is also a tendency to prefer national to subject or citizen in some countries where the sovereign power is not clearly vested in a monarch or ruler or in the people, or where theories of racism prevail.”