Lexicography is a complicated practice. Dictionaries often pull together definitions based on common usage, but most lexicographers shy away from allowing public perceptions to color the way words are defined. Not all of them, though. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Merriam-Webster changed the definition of an “assault rifle.”

Here’s their revised definition. Assault Rifle: noun: any of various intermediate-range, magazine-fed military rifles (such as the AK-47) that can be set for automatic or semiautomatic fire; also : a rifle that resembles a military assault rifle but is designed to allow only semiautomatic fire.

The entry was updated March 31, 2018.

“An Internet archive search,” The Federalist writes, “shows the Merriam-Webster entry for ‘assault rifle’ appears to be different now than it was before the shooting. A cached version of the same entry from June 13, 2016 has this definition:

“noun:  any of various automatic or semiautomatic rifles with large capacity magazines designed for military use.”

Where did the term originate? “‘Assault rifle’ was first used to describe a military weapon, the Sturmgewehr, produced by the Germans in World War II,” The New York Times notes. “The Sturmgewehr — literally ‘storm rifle,’ a name chosen by Adolf Hitler — was capable of both semiautomatic and full-automatic fire. It was the progenitor for many modern military rifles.”

The original meaning seems clear, and includes the automatic fire option–something that was still relatively new for standard infantry weapons in the 1940s. The issue in 2018 is that “a rifle that resembles a military assault rifle but is designed to allow only semiautomatic fire” has been added. Now assault rifles are no longer tools of the military. They no longer have to be select-fire weapons of war.

The definition is understandably complicated. For more than 20 years, the firearms industry has recoiled from the term “assault rifle.”

As the New York Times points out, though, they embraced the term as a marketing ploy not that long ago: “the term ‘assault rifle’ was expanded and broadened when gun manufacturers began to sell firearms modeled after the new military rifles to civilians. Guns & Ammo liked the term, at first, as the magazine above, from 1981, shows. In 1984, Guns & Ammo advertised a book called ‘Assault Firearms,’ which it said was ‘full of the hottest hardware available today’.”

Guns & Ammo botched that up. Soon after, the term assault rifle became a tool of coercion. Those opposed to Americans owning guns like the AR-15 would label them, erroneously, assault weapons. The firearms industry (including Guns & Ammo) fought back, calling AR-15s “modern-sporting-rifles,” but the label never caught on.

As such, uniformed citizens now conflate the AR-15 and the M-16 and M-4. They believe they have the same uses and abilities. This has a profound influence on public policy ( like the so-called “Assault Weapons Ban” of 1994).

Now, though, some lexicographers have simply changed the definition to reflect common usage, even though the common usage is fallacious. There is a tool for that in lexicography, and it is this italicized marker: slang. Yet this new definition doesn’t acknowledge that the definition is erroneous, or malicious political jargon, but instead canonizes the new meaning.

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, may know more about how humans use language than any other person on the planet. That’s not hyperbole. How does Lakoff see this issue? “No matter what language you use about guns,” he told The Times, “it’s going to be a problem because it’s not just about guns, it’s about personal identity.”

Source: The Tribunist

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