• Sanjukta Moorthy

Narrative Change and the Dictionary

I recently listened to a really interesting episode of 'The Indicator' on how dictionary editors find new words. It inspired me to think about how we could better observe narrative change.


A word gets added similarly to how we measure lagging indicators: it happens after the word has been used long enough to justify being part of 'the book'. A word is added when it's new to people outside its normal audience.


When words like 'gender mainstreaming' became (wait for it) mainstream, that's a good sign of a phrase being considered for the dictionary. It also tells us a lot about how we can measure narrative change.


When we started talking about gender mainstreaming in wider circles, it was part of a shift in how our industry works. I was working in philanthropy at the time, and when that phrase was widely used, it was part of a set of conversations about how we engage with gender and rights at work and what that meant for us as a workplace. It was part of a broader narrative change about how we looked at the role of gender in our programming, especially those of us whose work supported women human rights defenders, for example.

Image courtesy: The Barefoot Guide 6

When a phenomenon or idea is named, it becomes easier to understand and, therefore, to share. 'Intersectional' as a word was developed in 1989, but I'd say the idea of it has existed as long as humanity. Naming it and sharing the idea of it, though, was one way to make sure it shaped the way we were talking about and engaging with the concept.


The way dictionary editors mine the public discourse for new words and phrases gave me some ideas for how our industry could do something similar to measure how attitudes, for example, are shifting.


Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Mirriam Webster, used this example in the podcast: when words travel along a conveyor belt from obscurity to mainstream usage.


Dictionary editors keep an eye out for words when they're still being used with 'linguistic white gloves'. If you put parentheses after a word to explain it or use quotation marks, it's pretty new.


Image courtesy: The Barefoot Guide 6

If we apply this idea to our work, we should spend time on narrative change projects doing 'R&M' (see, that's a great example of 'linguistic white gloves' too) - reading and marking.


Combing through various sources to find interesting words related to our project.


Subscribing to newsletters from NGOs in your country, journals in your topic or geographic area, and reading the mainstream media there is a great way to start.


You could then observe the more generalist spaces - the Mirriam-Webster team looks at soup can labels and restaurant menus to see what the public sees.


Our equivalent would be trawling social media, even the accounts of those who oppose our views or politicians on different sides of the issue we're fighting for.



Observe how they're using language and specific words to convey a message, and think about how much you align with what's being used. There was a time when women human rights defenders, for example, were not a group of people that would be talked about without air quotes. It's been mainstreamed and thereby given legitimacy and acceptance.


You could also list interesting words as you do your project and your R&M. You can use a cloud tool to map them out and make links between them.


See how people use those words and the intonation of what's being said. This can help you figure out how to message your work to get the right idea across.

Image courtesy: The Barefoot Guide 6

In human rights work, measuring when your groups - allies and enemies alike - are using the same terminology as you could even be an indicator of your advocacy work's success.


For example, if you put forth a jargony phrase to label a strategy you're using, and you slowly see that phrase being used by people you don't directly work with, that's a sign of the phenomenon being recognised by other people.


If they mention it with increasing frequency, you could gather the tone and context of what's being said about your strategy in your word cloud.


Use the evolution of its recognition and use as a barometer of how your project is gaining visibility.


It will grow from visibility to acceptance by your communities and wider context if done well. Even if they're not always saying particularly supportive things about your strategy, I'd say you're still pushing for narrative change.


What do you think? Isn't the process fascinating? How else could we engage with this approach to mining for new words and apply it to our work in scanning our context?