“Whitelash” Was Just Added To — Here’s What It Means

by Sanam Yar
Dragon Images/Shutterstock

What do sneakerheads, Afrofuturism, and dad jokes have in common? Generally speaking, not a lot, but these phrases are among over 300 new terms being inducted into today. Modern language is a window into society’s current cultural landscape, and the recent update features tons of new words that draw on themes like social justice, cultural identity, politics, and, yes, even memes. Two noteworthy additions to’s catalog include “whitelash” and “media literacy.”

Considering that’s word of the year in 2018 was “misinformation,” the addition of media literacy isn’t particularly surprising. The site defines it as “the ability or skills to critically analyze for accuracy, credibility, or evidence of bias the content created and consumed in various media, including radio and television, the internet, and social media.” Basically, being media literate means being critical when it comes to navigating the onslaught of content we consume in our daily lives. It’s an especially salient notion in a time where the news media has come under heavy scrutiny, meanwhile conspiracy theories continue to “boom” on platforms like YouTube.

The addition of the term whitelash is also significant, with the site defining it as “a hostile or violent reaction by white people to the advances or influx of other racial or ethnic groups.” According to Jane Solomon, linguist-in-residence at, the term originated in the late 1960s and can be applied in a variety of contexts, though it gained popularity in 2016 when CNN contributor Van Jones reasoned that President Trump’s election victory was due, in part, to whitelash. “This was a whitelash against a changing country,” Jones said on CNN, “It was a whitelash against a black president, in part, and that's the part where the pain comes.”

Though sites like Cambridge Dictionary,, and Urban Dictionary all have varying definitions of the phrase, the word’s usage has evolved to apply more broadly to backlash from white people towards the successes and mobility of other racial groups. "I've seen places like CNN falsely attribute the coinage of 'whitelash' to Van Jones, but the the word had been around for decades," Solomon tells Bustle. "He just used it in a way that resonated for many people and upset others."

She notes that the update also includes the relevant term "white fragility," which refers to "the tendency among members of the dominant white cultural group to have a defensive, wounded, angry, or dismissive response to evidence of racism.”

But not all of the new additions reflect terms that have risen in response to polarization. Some highlight empowering language, like the addition of “Afrofuturism” due to its recent repopularization following the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Inclusive words like “Latinx” (used in place of the gendered Latino or Latina) and “safe space” (“a physical or emotionally safe environment, especially for marginalized identities”) have also been added to the site, cementing their significance in modern life. Terms like “male gaze” and “toxic masculinity” being added to the site demonstrate their shift from more niche phrases to widely relevant ones in modern discourse over the years, especially in light of the #MeToo Movement.

Of course, there’s also the meme fodder and Twitterspeak that’s become dictionary-approved: “womp womp,” “dumpster fire,” “thirst trap,”and “infodump” are among the new searchable words on the site. "We prioritize our list based on what words we think people will actually want to look up in the long term," says Solomon. "Each word we define takes a lot of careful research and editing, whether it's a slang term like 'thirst trap' or a more academic word like ‘impostor syndrome.'"

If language is a reflection of its time, these new words offer some unique insight into 2019 and the years to come.