Request from Karen Refugees: Change the Dictionary!

I am in Thailand again for the annual Pepperdine Law Spring Break trip.  It’s arguably my favorite event to lead.  One of the most fascinating experiences for our students is an overnight stay at Mae La Refugee Camp with the Karen people along the Thai-Burma border.  We learn about the plight of the Karen, the dramatic story of Burma, and the ongoing fight for freedom.


As usual, we joined them on our morning of departure for a church service.  In typical fashion, we sat in front and each student introduced themselves.  I gave a message.  When that was over, one of the pastors thanked us and, in front of 450 Karen in the congregation, asked for our help in an important matter.  The dictionary.  In The New American Oxford Dictionary, he explained, the Karen people are defined as a “wild unclean man.”  Could you help us change it? he pled–he had written to the dictionary and received no response.

I was stunned–by both the perplexing nature this prejudicial definition and the specificity of their request.  Naturally, as lawyers, we all wanted to see the definition in print.  An outdated dictionary perhaps?  Urban legend possibly?  We would need to make it back to Chiang Mai to read this supposed definition in an obscure dictionary edition.

Or so we thought.

On Lisa’s Kindle, The New American Oxford Dictionary comes pre-loaded.  Not so obscure after all.  And, there it was, the high definition: “from Burmese ka-reng ‘wild unclean man.’”  The offending definition was Oxford’s proposed etymology, not the full definition itself.  Nonetheless, the Karen position is completely understandable.  For the several million strong Karen population now spread the world over as ambassadors and refugees of Karen nation, the definition is simply offensive.  Especially for refugees getting resettled among 11 nations, the definition is prejudicial.

The New American Oxford Dictionary

The New American Oxford Dictionary origin, however, is suspect.  First, the language of the Karen isn’t Burmese—it’s Karen.  It’s dubious that the Karen would adopt a name for themselves not of their own language.  It’s also questionable that they would willfully adopt a derogatory term.

We immediately began some research on the origin of the name.  It’s been studied by anthropologists and there is a fairly clear consensus among them: they don’t know.  While the exact origin of name “Karen” is unknown, the most probable scenario is that it came from the Kayin, another hill tribe in eastern Burma who speak a related Sino-Tibetan language.   No anthropologist suggests the name originated a derogatory Burmese term.

While the exact origin of “Karen” is unknown, The New American Oxford Dictionary treats it as conclusive fact.  At the very least, this is incomplete and misleading, if not woefully inaccurate.  While the good people at Oxford Press may not be moved by the effect of their definitions, I suspect they are concerned about the accuracy of their dictionary.

So, what do we do from here?  Despite their many needs as refugees, its not very often that the Karen ask for something specific.  Thus, we are inclined to do what we can.

Two questions:

1)     Does anyone have an explanation for the Karen name that explains or refutes the NAOD definition?

2)    If the definition is inaccurate, does anyone have any suggestions for how to help get the definition changed?  We are considering a letter from Pepperdine University School of Law to Oxford Press as well as a subsequent or concurrent petition.

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8 Responses to Request from Karen Refugees: Change the Dictionary!

  1. Gretchen O'Donnell March 14, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    Oh, my! Talk about never knowing what to expect when traveling! How great that they asked you – I really think that shows they trust you…and have high expectations of you! Where else could they turn?! I hope you’re able to make an inpact on that definition!

    • Jay March 14, 2013 at 8:25 am #

      Thanks, Gretchen! Yes, it’s probably the most unexpected request I’ve ever received. But, it’s also concrete enough that we could actually do something about it. It could make an interesting project for our students. And, it’s important to them.

  2. Brian March 14, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    For what it’s worth, it appears that the online Oxford Dictionary (searching U.S. English and British/World English) preserves the disputed etymology, but omits the offensive translation:

    “Origin: from Arakanese (a language of Burma) karang”
    [fonts omitted]

    I agree that a summary of research you’ve done, presented in an open letter (maybe from the Nootbaar Institute) is the best approach (the dictionary has a few online submission forms but I question their efficacy for this kind of thing). Maybe have a couple anthropologists/linguists sign on? Or gather some signatures for a petition while you’re over there?

    Interesting request. Best of luck.

    • Jay March 14, 2013 at 9:06 am #

      Thanks, Brian. We have only surveyed a few dictionaries, but we need to do a more exhaustive search on that. Interesting that Oxford online omits the offending etymology and that the New American Oxford Dictionary differs. My understanding is that the Oxford Dictionary is the big one and the New American Oxford Dictionary has different editors who condensed the Oxford Dictionary for an American audience. But I’m not dictionary effort. No matter the case, it still appears to be the current use in Oxford Dictionary is better. I’ll keep you posted on if and how we respond.

  3. Oxford Dictionaries team March 20, 2013 at 4:26 am #

    Dear Jay,
    The etymology you cited from the Kindle edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) contains inaccuracies which have since been corrected in the online version of NOAD: The Kindle currently uses the 2010 NOAD print edition, and the corrections will be carried over into print and licensed products in due course.
    The etymology of the word in the online edition of NOAD says “from Arakanese (a language of Burma) karang”. A similar etymology appears in our other online dictionaries.
    All best wishes,
    The Oxford Dictionaries team

  4. Matt March 25, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Talk about Going and Doing. It took you less than a week to get the Oxford Dictionaries team’s attention. Nice work, Jay.

    • Jay April 3, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

      Ha! Thanks, Matt!

  5. Martin March 27, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    This is particularly interesting in light of the Burma/Myanmar ‘debate’. As you may know the current government of Myanmar claims that the name ‘Myanmar’ is more ethically inclusive than ‘Burma’, which refers specifically to the majority ethnic group and could conceivably exacerbate tensions with minority groups (though not nearly as much as attacking them with fighter jets and firing white phosphorous shells at them). Nonetheless interesting to see these unexpected intersections of abstruse onomastics and contemporary politics.

What do you think?

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