Merriam-Webster’s update to “anti-vaxxer” misrepresented online
CLAIM: Merriam-Webster changed the definition of anti-vaxxer to now include those who oppose “regulations mandating vaccination.”
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing Context. Merriam-Webster’s anti-vaxxer listing already included language similar to the clause being cited online, but the wording was changed to “regulations” rather than “laws.”
THE FACTS: Posts circulating widely on social media claim Merriam-Webster changed the definition of “anti-vaxxer” to include those who oppose “regulations mandating vaccination.” But the posts don’t explain that the previous entry used a similar definition.
“None of us were ‘anti-vaxxers’ until they literally changed the definition to include those who ‘oppose the use of... regulations mandating vaccination,’” one Facebook reads, showing a screenshot of the Merriam-Webster definition of the word. “The most Orwellian thing to happen during this pandemic is the real-time altering of definitions to gaslight the world.”
The word “regulations” is indeed new to the entry, but the old definition similarly included individuals who were against legal vaccine mandates.
An archived version of the definition from November 2018 shows the definition of “anti-vaxxer” was “a person who opposes vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.”
The current Merriam-Webster definition of “anti-vaxxer” is “a person who opposes the use of vaccines or regulations mandating vaccination.” The updated entry also adds after the main definition: “especially : a parent who opposes having his or her child vaccinated.”
In a statement to The Associated Press, Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor at large, said the initial entry for “anti-vaxxer” was added online on Feb. 28, 2018, and that it was revised this year, on Oct. 4, as “part of the regular updates to the online dictionary.”
“The reason for the change from ‘laws’ to ‘regulations’ is that overwhelming citational evidence shows that this term is used regarding vaccine policies for school districts, restaurants, concert venues, and bars, and that many of these policies are not laws,” Sokolowski said.
The updated entry also notes that the word is “often used before another noun,” and includes several new example sentences.
Last month, Merriam-Webster announced that its 2021 word of the year is vaccine. And earlier this year, it added to its online entry for “vaccine” to cover all the talk of mRNA vaccines, or messenger vaccines such as those for COVID-19 developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, The Associated Press has reported.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.