Was Mahatma Gandhi a ‘Hindu’ nationalist leader?

An anthropological exploration into the Ideology of Webster’s Dictionary of American English

Abhijit Guha

Educated persons have an idea that a dictionary or lexicon, which is an alphabetical list of words and their meanings with pronunciation, etymology and origin, is unbiased and neutral. The same kind of belief exists about an encyclopedia, which unlike a dictionary, is a compendium of information on many subjects or any particular subject, say a medical encyclopedia. Teachers and parents always advise their students and children to look into dictionaries and encyclopedias, whenever the latter want to know the meaning of a word or about any subject. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are supposed to supply authentic meaning of words and information on various subjects. They have become essential part of culture of the educated community. We often forget that dictionaries and encyclopedias are compiled and written by human beings who are also products of specific cultural milieus, which could be studied by the anthropologists.[1]  An intersecting field of study between anthropology and lexicology may be the study of ‘Dictionary Culture’, which is still primarily a domain of the lexicographers. Dictionary culture is defined as ‘[t]he critical awareness of the value and limitations of dictionaries and other reference works in a particular community’ (Hartman & James 1998:41).In an interesting article on developing a dictionary culture the author reported the ‘poor dictionary culture’ among the students of South Africa and have shown that dictionaries should also be read with other relevant ‘outer texts’ which helped to develop a critical view of the lexicon (Nkomo 2015: 71-99).
Dictionary of anthropology and anthropology of dictionary
A search in the Google with the phrase ‘Anthropology of dictionary’ or ‘anthropological study of dictionary’ yielded the names of numerous dictionaries of anthropology and the definition of anthropology as a subject or discipline but not any study or research done by the anthropologists on dictionaries per se. A Google search for the open access articles on the literature on Linguistic Anthropology yielded 363 full text articles by 344 authors and I could not find a single article on the study of an English dictionary ( accessed on 30.07.2020). Anthropologists have mainly done studies on the relationship between language, culture and society under a variety of spatio-temporal context. Linguistic anthropologists seemed to be chiefly interested in the construction of ethnographies around the speech communities all over the world by following the classical lead given by the American founders of the sub-discipline like Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, Dell Hymes and John Gumperz. Contemporary Linguistic Anthropology followed the trail of these founders through the study of documentation of languages, study of language through context, and study of identity through linguistic means. Take for example a textbook entitled Linguistic Anthropology published by the Cambridge University Press in 1997 neither mentioned the word ‘Dictionary’ in  its subject index nor did the author discuss about the study of dictionaries and its influence in shaping the opinions of the public in any language(Duranti 1997).There were interesting studies by anthropologically oriented linguists on the discourse of cultural keywords in which researchers wrote empirical case studies on speech communities spread over wide regions of the world (Levisen 2017).   In contrast to linguistic anthropologists the lexicographers have studied the evolution, typology and use of dictionaries in detail without forgetting the ideological content of the latter. In a comprehensive research article ‘The Ideology of the Perfect Dictionary: How Efficient Can a Dictionary Be?’ published in a reputed journal of Lexicography the author noted the importance of dictionary writing in the following manner

Language learners, for whom dictionaries are of great importance, seek user-friendly material which will improve both their fluency in and understanding of the target language, and embed acquired lexis in their long-term memory. Lexicographers, in their search for perfection and in compliance with users' wishes, are constantly innovating, and every dictionary hopes to become a landmark in lexicography and in second language acquisition (Abecassis 2008:1-14).

The author, however finally observed that any proposed model of dictionary effectiveness is likely to be ‘subjective’ depending on the ‘teaching environment’ of the learner and since 1970s the dictionaries have gradually become more ‘prescriptive’ than ‘descriptive’(Ibid pp.11 & 2).

In another interesting book Authority in language: investigating standard English (1992) (quoted by Michaël Abecassis in the aforementioned article), the authors perceptively noted

'Standard' therefore refers to the long-established codified variety, promoted by education, grammar books, text-books and dictionaries that establish what is 'correct' and proscribe what should not be said or written. Such a system of attitudes to linguistic variation has been labelled the 'ideology of the standard' (Milroy and Milroy1992:23).

What is revealing from above is the admission by the experts that dictionaries have their ideologies and despite sincere attempts by the lexicographers to set the standard, lexicons may remain an ideological project. In the next section, I will narrate how ideological biases have influenced the writing of Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English.

The ideology of the Webster       
One of the most famous encyclopedic dictionaries is the Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English,which was first published in 1951 and then in 1953 its first college edition appeared after a decade of preparation by a group of dedicated young scholars in the United States of America. The main objective of this group of energetic and enthusiastic lexicographers was to break away from the then prevailing view on dictionaries. The established view of the lexicographers was similar to the current belief about the lexicon which ran as follows: ‘a dictionary or lexicon is authoritative like a law of the land. One has to abide by what the dictionary says. Lexicons can never make mistakes or errors’. Contrary to the popular belief,  in the Foreword of the Webster’s first college edition, the editors wrote about their dictionary that it ‘was not to create the impression that it was authoritarian, laying down the law; it was to play, rather, the role of a friendly guide, pointing out the safe, well-traveled roads.’  Their main innovation was giving importance to relaxed pronunciation used in ordinary conversations by cultivated speakers of that language, then known as ‘General American’.

The Third college edition of the  Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English was published in 1988 by Simon and Schuster Inc., which was the revised version of its second edition published from 1970 onwards going through several rounds of  revision up to 1986. The third edition is a massive 1557 pages encyclopedic dictionary with colour plates containing more than 1,70,000 words and their meanings. This dictionary was compiled by one hundred scholars in different fields with editorial assistance of specialists in 22 branches of knowledge, like, Aeronautics&Astronautics, Anthropology, Astronomy, Automotive Engineering, Biology, Biochemistry, Biophysics, Chemistry, Dentistry, Law, Music, Philosophy, Photography, Physics, Sports and many others. Interestingly, there was no special consultant and contributing editor on history and politics.   Apart from words, this encyclopedic dictionary has an interesting set of entries, which is, brief information about famous scientists, litterateurs, politicians, statesmen and women, film makers, artists and sportspersons. The bias of Webster in this regard is quite remarkable. For example, we do not find the names of Satyajit Ray or Steven Spielberg although the names of Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa appeared on pages 435, 498, 641 and 751 respectively. In case of sportspersons, the omissions are also conspicuous. One will not find the names of Sir Donald Bradman, Pelé and Lev Yashin but names of the famous U.S. boxer Muhammad Ali and  American baseball players like Willie Mays as well as George Herman Ruth  have been printed in pages 34, 837 and 1177 in that order. Interestingly, among the Indian intellectuals, we find the name of Jagadish Chandra Bose as ‘Sir Jagadish Chandra 1858-1937:Ind.physicst and plant physiologist’ in page 163 but not the name of C.V.Raman! The name of Rabindranath Tagore appears as ‘Tagore, Sir, Rabindranath 1861-1941 Indian (Bengali) poet’ in page 1363 but    Swami Vivekananda did not find a place in this dictionary.

The Webster’s encyclopedic dictionary seems to have a great interest in recording the names of political leaders and statesmen of the past and contemporary period of different countries of the world. Thus, we find Fidel Castro (p.219), Che Guevara (p.599), Nelson Mandela (p.821) and Lech Walesa (p.1501) and here comes the most interesting part of the dictionary, particularly for the Indian users. The last entry in page 554 is ‘Gandhi’ and there are two sub-entries of the word, which are: 1.Mrs.Indira (Nehru) 1917-84; Indian statesman: prime minister of India (1966-77: 1980-84): assassinated: daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. 2. Mohandas Karamchand(1869-1948): Hindu nationalist leader and social reformer : assassinated : called Mahatma Gandhi.’ Interestingly, Indira Gandhi has been referred to as a ‘statesman’. The Collins online English dictionary is not sexist like the Webster and mentioned Indira Gandhi as an ‘Indian stateswoman’ (file:///C:/Users/AG/Desktop/Gandhi_in_Dictionary/Gandhi%20definition%20and%20meaning%20_%20Collins%20English%20Dictionary.html accessed on 14.07.2020). It is relevant here to mention what the Collins online dictionary says about Mahatma Gandhi. In the British English version Collins reads about M.K.Gandhi as follows:
‘Mohandas Karamchand, known as Mahatma Gandhi. 1869–1948, Indian political and spiritual leader and social reformer. He played a major part in India's struggle for home rule and was frequently imprisoned by the British for organizing acts of civil disobedience. He advocated passive resistance and hunger strikes a means of achieving reformcampaigned for the Dalit, and attempted to unite Muslims and Hindus. He was assassinated by a Hindu extremist’ (Ibid). More interestingly, in the American English version Collins also followed the Webster route on M.K.Gandhi by saying: ‘Mohandas Karamchand 1869-1948; Hindu nationalist leader & social reformer: assassinated (Ibid). Another popular American dictionary, The Random House Dictionary also designated ‘Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘Hindu religious leader and nationalist’ (p.372) but unlike Webster the formermentioned Jawaharlal Nehru as ‘Hindu political leader; first prime minister of India’ (p.600).The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary(OALD) made a nice contrast in defining Mahatma Gandhi. It stated: ‘Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian spiritual leader who opposed British rule in India’ ( accessed on 30.07.2020).However, the use of the word ‘spiritual’ is important here since in OALD one meaning of ‘Spiritual’ is ‘Relating to religion or religious belief’ and the example sentence in italics in the same reads ‘the country's spiritual leader’ ( accessed on 30.07.2020).[2]

The anthropological question, which arises, is ‘Why the adjective ‘Hindu’ is put before the name of Mahatma Gandhi’ in the Webster’s dictionary? Indira Gandhi was also a Hindu but her name was not preceded by the adjective Hindu! Let us move to page 908 of the Webster’s encyclopedic dictionary and, we now find the word ‘Nehru’. Kindly examine the information provided by the lexicon, which reads: ‘Jawaharlal 1889-1964; Indian nationalist leader in India’s movement for independence: prime minister (1947-64).’ So, Jawaharlal Nehru also did not require the epithet ‘Hindu’ like M.K.Gandhi, who was popularly known by the Indians as ‘Bapuji’ or the ‘Father of the nation’ in their normal conversation. The lexicographers of Webster did not care to listen to Indian vocabulary, which they promised to do in case of the cultivated speakers known as ‘General American’. Let me move to the entry under the name ‘Thomas Paine’, the famous revolutionary patriot of the United States of America.  In page 971, the dictionary reads: ‘Paine Thomas 1737-1809; American Revolutionary patriot, writer, and political theoretician, born in England’. In page 1507, the dictionary says about George Washington: ‘Washington George 1732-99: 1st president of the U.S. (1789-97): commander in chief of the Continental army’, and on page 785 it said about Abraham Lincoln: ‘Lincoln, Abraham 1809-65; 16th president of the U.S. (1861-65): assassinated.
My point is simple. All the three great nation builders of the United States of America were Christians. Paine for example, despite his severe criticisms of The Bible believed in one supreme God and in early life he was also a member of the parish vestry, an influential local church group in East Sussex, England ( 
Lincoln was a believer in the Bible and frequently quoted and praised the Holy book in his speeches( George Washington also privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray ( Why then the famous and prestigious Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English depicted Gandhi primarily as a Hindu nationalist leader of India?[3] Finally, let us look at what the dictionary says about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The Webster says in page 727: ‘Jinnah, Muhammed Ali 1876-1948: Indian statesman: 1st governor general of Pakistan (1947-1948).’  Suffice it to say that Jinnah is not depicted as a Muslim nationalist by the dictionary!

I would conclude with a quote from the erudite article ‘The English language: variation, the dictionary and the user’ by John Algeo printed in the Third college edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English, about which the editor in chief Victoria Neufeldt stated:  ‘Users of this dictionary are urged to read this essay of Algeo’ then Professor of English at the University of Georgia and former editor of the journal American Speech. I quote Algeo

Lexicographers however are human beings like the rest of us, with preconceptions, prejudices, and preferences. They subscribe to whatever worldview dominated their culture, and are taken in by the same popular delusions as we are. When they are functioning as lexicographers, they attempt to curb those normal human responses, but can never do so completely. Prejudices can be worked unconsciously into a dictionary, a fact that both the writers and users of the work have to keep in mind (Algeo 1988: xvii—xxiv).

The Hindu nationalist leaders all over the world may rejoice Webster’s categorization of our Father of the nation as ‘Hindu’ but the ideological bias of the American lexicographers is unambiguous as narrated in this article.

I am grateful to Santanu Guha, Tapan Maulick, Prabir Das, Haradhan Bhattacharya and Asi Guha for their feedbacks and useful suggestions on the article. I am grateful to the editorial board of The Statesman for publishing a popular and shorter version of this article on 16/09/2020 in the newspaper (Please visit   

Abecassis, M. (2008). The Ideology of the Perfect Dictionary: How Efficient Can a Dictionary Be? Lexikos 18: 1-14.

Algeo, J. (1988). The English language: variation, the dictionary and the user. In Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English (Ed.) V. Neufeldt. Cleveland & New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.
Duranti, A. (1997). Linguistic Anthropology. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Levisen, C. & Waters, S. (2017). How words do things with people? In Cultural Keywords in Discourse (Eds.) C. Levisen and S. Waters. Roskilde University / University of New England: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company.
Hartmann, R.R.K., and G. James. 1998. Dictionary of lexicography. London: Routledge.
Milroy, J. and L. Milroy. (1992). Authority in language: investigating language prescription and standardisation. London/New York: Routledge.
Nokomo, D. (2015). Developing a dictionary culture through integrated dictionary pedagogy in the outer texts of South African school dictionaries: the case of Oxford Bilingual School Dictionary: IsiXhosa and English. Lexicography ASIALEX (2015) 2:71–99. DOI 10.1007/s40607-015-0021-8.
The Random House Dictionary. (1978).New York: Random House Inc. Ballantine Books.
Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English (1988). Third College Edition, Deluxe Color Edition (ISBN 0-13-192659-4). New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

1. In 2010 the Southern California school board banned the Merrium-Webster dictionary after a parent complained about the entry “oral sex” in the dictionary. The Merriam-Webster spokesperson told the media:
“The job of the dictionary is to reflect language. Unfortunately, some of those words are going to be the sort you don’t want grade-school kids using ... We don’t recommend the use of our college-level dictionary at the grade-school level”( THE STAR(accessed on 19/09/2020 at

2. In this connection it may be noted that in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica Mahatma Gandhi is depicted in the following manner.

“Mahatma Gandhi, by name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (born October 2, 1869, Porbandar, India—died January 30, 1948, Delhi), Indian lawyer, politician, social activist, and writer who became the leader of the nationalist movement against the British rule of India. As such, he came to be considered the father of his country. Gandhi is internationally esteemed for his doctrine of nonviolent protest (satyagraha) to achieve political and social progress” ( accessed on 01.08.2020).this encyclopedia article was written by B.R. Nanda, Former Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

3. The editorial board of the Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English should have noted the historical fact that in 1934 Mahatma Gandhi was not allowed to enter the famous Hindu Jagannath temple at Puri in Odisha when he was accompanied by Muslims, Christians, and Dalits. The temple authorities refused to allow them entry. Protesting this, Gandhi organized a march which he called the “harijana padayäträ” from the temple’s Singhadwar gate. Gandhiji asked them, ‘Why should there be any difference between men in a temple of God?’( on 01.08.2020).

The author taught Anthropology at Vidyasagar University, Medinipur, West Bengal during December 1985-August 2016

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Sep 26, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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