The definition of the word racism is getting an update in Springfield-based Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary for the first time in decades, thanks to a recent college graduate from Missouri.

“Isms” — including socialism, feminism, and racism — are among the most looked up words in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, day-in and day-out, according to editor Peter Sokolowski.

“These happen to be extremely abstract ideas,” he said. “And putting concrete words to abstract ideas is a difficult challenge for everybody and that include dictionary editors.”

It’s a challenge that 22-year old Kennedy Mitchum felt Merriam-Webster had not quite met when it came to the word racism. She reached out to dictionary editors late last month, saying she felt their definition of the word failed to accurately capture the sometimes systemic nature of racism.

Mitchum told the BBC that in sharing personal experiences that she felt were examples of systematic racism on social media, she got pushback from people who pointed to the dictionary to prove that she was wrong.

"Some troll was messaging me trying to say 'You don't understand what racism truly is,'" she said.

Editor Peter Sokolowski noted that while the dictionary’s first definition defines individual racism, systemic racism is touched on in its second definition.

“It says, ‘a political or social system, founded on racism,’” he explained. “However, it’s a very short definition.”

After an exchange with Mitchum, Sokolowski said editors have decided to reexamine that definition, which hasn’t been revised in decades.

“We feel that that kind of language, which is short and deliberately brief because it was originally written for a print dictionary, could be expanded. [It] could be made more clear.”

The word will now undergo the dictionary’s rigorous, multi-step revision process. The new, expanded definition is expected to be released in August.

Sokolowski said he has received emails critical of the decision to reexamine the definition, but defends the move as a normal and critical aspect of what dictionary editors do.

“Activism doesn’t change the dictionary, but activism can change the language,” he said. “Our job is to reflect those changes accurately in the dictionary so that we all know exactly what we mean when we use these words.”