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A glossary for the United States

A collection of pleasant, readable definitions of terms and processes in the United States. Public domain. Designed for integration in various user-facing applications.

Ease of understanding is the #1 priority. Precision and completeness are #2.


Definitions are stored in text files, one per file. The name of the entry is the filename (no extension).

The first line is a short, single sentence definition. It should be possible to form a small, light glossary by using the first sentence of every entry.

A longer definition can follow, with paragraphs separated by two line breaks. The longer definition can use links (with Markdown), but the text should hold up even if the links are stripped out. It should be possible to form a rich glossary using the full plain text of every entry, even if formatting gets stripped out.

For Example

In the Senate, cloture votes are often practically equivalent to passage votes. Even when people know what a "filibuster" is, the word "cloture" may not mean much.

So, for Cloture:

Before a bill can proceed to a final up-or-down vote in the Senate, 60 senators must agree to end debate through a vote on "cloture".

Preventing the Senate from ending debate in order to avoid voting to pass a bill is often called a filibuster.

The 60-senator threshold for cloture votes is a Senate rule - it is not part of the Constitution. The Constitution mandates a majority vote for the passage of bills, but the Senate is allowed to set its own rules that govern the process of getting to that final vote.

Glossary as data

The glossary automatically takes definitions contributed as prose, and publishes them as JSON files, accessible at predictable URLs on Github.

For example, the prose definition for definitions/congress/Cloture is available at:

Under the hood: whenever a contribution is accepted on the master branch, Github pings a small service that reads through each contributed definition and transforms them into JSON files that are pushed to the project's gh-pages branch.

The code for this service, a small Node app optimized for deployment on Heroku, is also in this repository, in the dat branch.

Each JSON file contains a definition in various useful forms:

  • short_definition - plaintext, contains the first sentence of the entry.
  • long_definition - Markdown, contains the whole entry, as entered.
  • long_definition_text - plaintext, contains the whole entry, stripped of links.
  • long_definition_html - HTML, contains the whole entry, with links transformed into HTML.

And any extra information, all optional:

  • source - Name of the source this definition was obtained or adapted from.
  • source_url - A URL for where this definition was obtained or adapted from.


This project has 3 entirely separate branches:

  • master - Project description, definitions in prose. Accepts contributions of new definitions.
  • gh-pages - Glossary definitions as data. Automatically synced with definitions on master branch. Doesn't accept contributions.
  • dat - Code for a small web service that manages the automatic syncing of the prose on the master branch to the data on the gh-pages branch

Discovering existing definitions

You can use the Github Repo Contents API to easily introspect on what definitions are available, and how the gh-pages branch is laid out. These are public URLs, you don't need to authenticate with Github.

This URL lists the main directories that definitions are sorted into:

This URL lists all the definitions in the congress directory:

In both cases, you'll get an array of results, where each result's name field will tell you what definitions are available. An example of partof the response you might see for definitions/congress:

    "name": "Adjourn.json",
    "path": "definitions/congress/Adjourn.json",
    "sha": "797db0bfd2be0d775383e7783ba95639cd9fa7f5",
    "size": 398,
    "url": "",
    "html_url": "",
    "git_url": "",
    "type": "file",
    "_links": {
      "self": "",
      "git": "",
      "html": ""

Public domain

This project is dedicated to the public domain. As spelled out in CONTRIBUTING:

The project is in the public domain within the United States, and copyright and related rights in the work worldwide are waived through the CC0 1.0 Universal public domain dedication.

All contributions to this project will be released under the CC0 dedication. By submitting a pull request, you are agreeing to comply with this waiver of copyright interest.