Legislation meets lexicography: the campaign for dictionary recognition of the word ‘upstander’
Update: ‘upstander’ has now been included in OxfordDictionaries.com, added a year after this article was published.
Oxford University Press frequently receives requests from members of the public to add a particular word to our dictionaries, but an official legislative resolution supporting a word’s inclusion may be unprecedented. Nonetheless, that is what happened on June 29, 2015, when the New Jersey State Senate approved a resolution “urging Merriam-Webster, Inc. and the Oxford University Press to include the word upstander in their dictionaries.” The resolution was the culmination of a years-long effort which arose from an anti-bullying campaign by New Jersey high school students.
The definition of upstander supplied in the resolution is ‘an individual who chooses to take positive action in the face of injustice in society or in situations in which individuals need assistance.’ This usage builds on the verbal phrase ‘to stand up for someone or something’, with implicit contrast to the bystander, who ‘stands by’ without taking action.
The New Jersey Senate resolution traces this usage to Samantha Power, current US Ambassador to the United Nations and author of the book A Problem from Hell: America & the Age of Genocide, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. In discussing the topic of her book, Power used the term upstander to describe individuals who spoke out against genocide, like Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, and Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide after World War II. It wasn’t long before this strand of meaning was adopted by others and extended from the specific context of genocide to those who stand up for others in the face of any type of prejudice or injustice, including bullying in schools. In 2004, for example, a Holocaust survivor named Lisl Bogart used the term in a presentation to Florida schoolchildren about her experiences during the war:
“I want to ask you today to be upstanders and not bystanders. When you see another student being picked on for being different, stand up for him. When you hear a student being called names, stand up for her. Don’t be a silent bystander. Be an upstander.” (2004 Palm Beach Post 19 December)
These developments represent a new meaning for upstander, but the full saga of the word dates back to at least the 1800s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has an entry for upstander referring to either of the two upright posts on a sledge, cited in discussions of arctic exploration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. American explorer Robert Peary wrote in 1903: “I had scarcely time to seize the upstanders when my dogs were off.”
There are also some earlier examples of upstander being applied to people. In a 1902 poem, Thomas Hardy wrote “The stout upstanders say, All’s well with us: ruers have nought to rue!” The upstanders in this case are the mass of people who have a less pessimistic and troubled outlook on the world than the narrator of the poem. The use may be influenced by the adjective upstanding. The word has also been used to mean a person who literally stands up; in the dialect of the Shetland Islands, a minister was sometimes called an upstander, in reference to his standing in the pulpit to give sermons. These examples are relatively unusual, though.
The more recent meaning of upstander, referring to someone who takes positive action against injustice, was added to the list of candidates for potential inclusion in Oxford’s dictionaries in February 2014, and since then we have periodically assessed it for inclusion. The chart below shows how its frequency in Oxford’s tracking corpus (a 6-billion word collection of sources drawn from the Internet which is updated each month) compares with that of cyberwarrior, one of the words added to Oxford Dictionaries in our most recent update in May.
At the moment, upstander does not quite meet the criteria for inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries, but if usage continues and expands, it could be a strong candidate in the future. The New Jersey Senate’s resolution is a powerful indication of the word’s potential significance, but the best way to ensure that upstander is ultimately added to dictionaries is for its supporters to use it as often as possible. If the word spreads among more and more English speakers, evidence for it will continue to mount, and its fate—not just in the dictionary, but in the English language itself—will be secure.