Spreading the word: Putting ‘peacebuilding’ in the dictionary

Last week, the words 'Instagram' and 'Instagrammable' were added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. How ‘adorbs’, to borrow another term recently added to the dictionary!

Indeed it is an adorable quality of languages, that they evolve, mutate and change as people play with words on the street and on football terraces, in cafes, bars and newspapers. The words we use matter. They shape how we see the world, the stories we tell each other and ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Warmonger, despot, brutality, warfare - all these words are in the dictionary, and quite right too. We need the right words to express the violent world around us. But it’s equally important to have the words to talk about how we can build peace.

Yet peacebuilding is a word apparently so under-recognised that you will not even find it lying quietly in a single English dictionary. How weird is that?

The term peacebuilding has been around for over forty years. In particular, it came into widespread use in 1992, when the then UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali committed the UN to peacebuilding, in his “Agenda for Peace”. Today, it’s a word littered throughout the speeches and reports of the United Nations (who even boast a Peacebuilding Support Office), the World Bank, governments, businesses, and non-governmental organisations right across the world from Sweden to Syria, Norway to Nigeria and the UK.

Peacebuilding means dealing with why people fight and supporting societies to resolve conflicts peacefully in order to prevent violent conflict and promote lasting and sustainable peace.

Peacebuilders work to ensure that people are safe from harm, have access to law and justice, are included in the political decisions that affect them, have access to better economic opportunities, and enjoy other aspects of well-being, such as health, education and a decent environment to live in.

It takes time, dedication and courage, to bring people together across divides. Last month, I was in northeast Nigeria visiting people trapped in cramped camps for the internally displaced. A young leader in the camp called Yusuf (not his real name) told me how his mother had been taken hostage by Boko Haram, when they attacked his home in Bama. The captors told his mother that Yusuf had been killed. His father died in captivity with Boko Haram. “Now I am the head of the household. I used to be a carpenter but now I have no tools, no work, no home. I have lost everything,” he told me.

“Initially I was angry and eager for revenge. I thought I would kill Boko Haram fighters. Then one day I saw the man who took my elderly mother”. He paused: “And I went up to him and shook hands with him. Because, if we don’t learn to forgive, we will never have peace. Now I spread the message in the camp,” he added.

Now Yusuf “preaches peace” as he describes it. “Because without raising awareness about building peace, even if the military defeat Boko Haram, we won’t have peace for a thousand years. The only way to bring peace between people is to reconcile.”

Surely it is time that the brave actions of such people who seek to build peace were recognised in the lexicon of words.

That’s why peacebuilders worldwide have clubbed together to get the word “peacebuilding” in the Oxford English, Cambridge, Harper Collins and Merriam Webster dictionaries. We have submitted the word to the dictionaries, we’ve put our case, we’ve had some positive first responses and now we want to get it trending.

It’s not just because we hate that squiggly line on computers that say we’ve made a spelling mistake every time we write peacebuilding (although that is reason enough). More than that, we think it’s vital that people have the language to understand the concept of peacebuilding, and back it more.

Despite the rise in violent conflict, peacebuilding remains underused compared to other international interventions to prevent conflict and create peace. By one estimate, annual expenditure on peacebuilding in 2016 was equivalent to less than 1% of the global cost of war that year and was dwarfed by the cost of development and humanitarian aid.

So step one is getting the term into the dictionaries. The next challenge would be to hit the heights of ‘Word of the Year’. Recent winners have been fake news, populism, and austerity. Let’s make sure next time words that show our capacity for peace top the charts!

Join our campaign and help get peacebuilding in the dictionary!