We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

When Noah Webster published his first dictionary in 1806, he probably didn’t imagine his work would be at the center of a D.C. legal dispute over homeless shelters two centuries thence. And yet as the city government defended its use of partitioned areas in recreation centers as shelter in court in February, officials pointed to Merriam-Webster to make their case. D.C. law requires the city to house homeless residents in “private rooms” during freezing conditions, and officials cited the dictionary’s definition of “room” as “a partitioned part of the inside of a building.” The judge didn’t buy it, given that it was the third listed definition—the first stipulates that a room is “divided from other areas by walls and a door and that has its own floor and ceiling”—and so the city was forced to move the families to more proper shelter. That didn’t settle the dispute: The Gray administration published its own definition of “private room” in a March emergency rule. Not to be outdone, the D.C. Council passed a bill in November with its definition, a more restrictive one, over dire warnings from Gray about strain on the shelter system. Sometimes, it’s best just to stick with Webster.