"Often Contemptuous" and "Usually Offensive": 120 Years of Defining "Redskin"
In the ongoing debate over the name of Washington's pro football team, folks on both sides have argued about the relative offensiveness of the word "redskin" over time. Team owner Dan Synder insists the R-word is a long-standing term of respect for Native Americans, saying in a letter to season ticket holders that "the name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor." Yet dusting off the old dictionary suggests otherwise.
In the current edition (the 11th) of the best-selling Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, redskin is defined as an "American Indian"—with the label "usually offensive" added for clarification. But when did that label get added—and how has Merriam-Webster defined the word over time?
According to Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer and Merriam-Webster editor at large, "redskin" first made its way into an M-W dictionary in 1890, when its unabridged International defined the word in this way:
A common appellation for a North American Indian—so called from the color of their skin.
That was just the beginning. Here's how Merriam-Webster's definition changed subtly over time:
1898: A different line of M-W dictionaries, the Collegiate, adds an important distinction in its first edition:
A North American Indian; —often contemptuous.
1909: The unabridged New International drops the "so called from the color of their skin" from the 1890 edition.