The recently released fifth edition of the New American Heritage Dictionary has surprised us with its recent inclusion of a term that sprouted in immigration speak. Among the new entries is the term “anchor baby” which is the pejorative description of a child born in the United States to parents without legal status, implying that the parents intend to leverage the child’s citizenship to “anchor” their own presence in the U.S. However, the way we interpret the term when it is used is not how the dictionary defines the word, instead their definition reads: “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.” Although the politically charged nature of the word made defining it difficult, the editors of the dictionary expressed that their trick to defining new words is to “define them objectively without taking sides and just presenting what it is. [This word] 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.” The problem with this is that the term “anchor baby” has never been a neutral one. The word also appears to be a wholly American creation as a result of the politics of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Therefore, the dictionary deliberately ignores the very specific intent of the term and gives it more credibility by treating it as some sort of universal description of children who acquire citizenship at birth. As has been pointed out, this masks the “poisonous and derogatory nature of the term” which demeans both parent and child and suggests that it is acceptable to call children of said circumstances an “anchor baby.” Also offensive is the fact that this new definition confuses popularity of a term with neutrality. Because the term has skyrocketed in usage in the last decade due to the explosion of anti-immigrant rhetoric, blogs and other media outlets, it does not exculpate the fact it is an insulting and derogatory way of characterizing and calling a person. By failing to make this distinction, the dictionary implies that the term is acceptable in common usage, thus misleading the public by insinuating that giving birth to a child in the U.S. necessarily carries with it the intention of using that child for immigration status. It is one thing for xenophobic politicians to utilize this term as a means to labeling their own ill-judged simpleminded comments, but the fact that the New American Heritage Dictionary fails to be precise in its definition of this combustible term is a linguistic tragedy. Because the term “anchor baby” epitomizes the way words reflect and reframe a debate, this skewed definition will likely seep into our culture, leading to ricochet effects that may frame the way we perceive immigrants and their children.
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