Merriam-Webster Updates 'Sexual Preference' Definition After Coney Barrett Comments

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 15, 2020

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington  (Source:Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary updated its online entry for "sexual preference" to note its "offensive" connotations following the use of the term by Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, the Daily Mail reports.

The Mail posted side-by-side screenshots of the Merriam-Webster definition for the word "preference," showing how the word had formerly been associated with "orientation" referred to as "sexual preference," but now has been tagged as "offensive" when used in that way.

The compound term "sexual preference" was likewise updated, and now reads:

The term sexual preference as used to refer to sexual orientation is widely considered offensive in its implied suggestion that a person can choose who they are sexually or romantically attracted to.

The editor at large of Merriam-Webster, Peter Sokolowski, confirmed to Newsweek that that change happened in response to the exchange between Hirono and Barrett, saying that "scheduled changes" to updated definitions are sometimes implemented early if a word gains sudden widespread relevance.

Sokolowski told Newsweek that "the public is implicitly asking us a question by looking up a word, and we are immediately able to provide additional information. This is something that we also did in March for terms connected to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Sokolowski added, "A revision made in response to an entry's increased attention differs only in celerity — as always, all revisions reflect evidence of use."

The update took place Oct. 13, shortly after Barrett referred to "sexual preference" during her confirmation hearing and Sen. Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, pointed out that "anti-LGBTQ activists" use the term in a way that implies that gay and lesbian people "choose" to be attracted to others of the same gender.

Barrett offered an apology, saying, "I certainly didn't mean and would never mean to use a term that would cause any offense in the LGBTQ community," NPR reported.

"If I did, I greatly apologize for that. I simply meant to be referring to Obergefell's holding with regard to same-sex marriage."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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