Merriam-Webster on Tuesday changed its definition of “preference” to note that the term is “offensive” when used in connection to an individual’s sexual orientation, just as a Senate Democrat was criticizing Judge Amy Coney Barrett for using the term during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Until at least September 28, the dictionary had defined “preference” to include reference to sexual orientation, but on Tuesday, the official definition was edited to include a note that the word’s usage in that context is “offensive.”
“The term 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,” Merriam-Webster stated in a note below the definition.
On Tuesday, the second day of Barrett’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, grilled Barrett on her use of the term “sexual preference,” criticizing her for using an “outdated term.”
“You use the term ‘sexual preference’ to describe those in the LGBTQ community. And let me make clear, ‘sexual preference’ is an offensive and outdated term,” Hirono said during her questioning of Barrett.
Earlier, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, had asked Barrett whether she would “vote to roll back hard-fought freedoms and protections for the LGBT community.”
“I have no agenda,” Barrett responded. “I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”
Hirono’s admonition came after MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin wrote a viral tweet declaring that the term is “offensive.”
"Sexual preference," a term used by Justice Barrett, is offensive and outdated. The term implies sexuality is a choice. It is not. News organizations should not repeat Justice Barrett's words without providing that important context.
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 13, 2020
Hirono also asked Barrett whether she had ever sexually harassed anyone or entered into a settlement related to such conduct.
“Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature?”
“No, Senator Hirono,” Barrett responded.
This is not the first time Merriam-Webster has changed a politically fraught definition. In June, the dictionary announced that it would add the concept of “systemic racism” to its definition of “racism” in response to a complaint. Last year, Merriam-Webster added another definition of the pronoun “they” to reflect its use by individuals who view themselves as neither male nor female.