#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 20°C Sunday 26 September 2021

Mare, bird, biddy: Thousands demand Oxford dictionaries change 'sexist' definitions

Oxford University Press said it is investigating whether to update the definition of woman.

Image: Shutterstock/Casimiro PT

SOME 30,000 PEOPLE have signed a petition calling on Oxford University Press to change its “misogynistic” definitions of the word woman. 

The petition, which started several months ago, highlights that several Oxford dictionaries use “sexist” synonyms for woman such as “bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, and filly”. 

Those who’ve signed the petition so far are asking that OUP ”eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women”. 

“These are the words which the Oxford’s English Dictionary online tells us mean the same as ‘woman’. This sexist dictionary must change,” Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, who started the petition, said.

Giovanardi also points to the sentences the OUP uses to demonstrate the usage of the word woman,  examples she says shows women as “sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men”, which include: “Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman”; “If that does not work, they can become women of the streets”; “male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’; “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman”.

The petition is asking that the OUP eliminates “all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women, enlarge the dictionary’s entry for ‘woman, and include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc”. 

In response, the OUP said the content mentioned in the petition appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a scholarly dictionary covering the full history of English.

“The content discussed in the petition derives from the Oxford Thesaurus of English and the Oxford Dictionary of English, which aim to cover contemporary English usage and are accessible online in a variety of formats,” Katherine Connor Martin, head of lexical content strategy, said. 

These texts are based on the methodologies of descriptive, corpus-based lexicography, meaning that editors analyse large quantities of evidence from real-life use to determine the meanings of words. If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory. 

“Our editors are investigating whether there are senses of woman which are not currently covered but should be added in a future update,” she added. 

Ladies’ man 

Gionvardi said she started the petition in an effort to reduce the abuse that women receive online, something she says can be done by looking at our language. 

“These misogynistic definitions have become widespread because search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo license the use of Oxford Dictionaries for their definitions, ” she said, adding that it can influence the way that women are spoken about online. 

The petition is also critical of OUP because “the definition of a man is much more exhaustive than that of a woman – with 25 examples for men, compared to only 5 for women”. 

However, Oxford University Press said that dictionary entries cannot be parallel unless the evidence shows that the words man and woman are used in identical ways, something it says is not the case. 

Statistical analysis of large digital text databases, or corpora, shows that there are significant differences in how the words man and woman are used—people speak of a ‘man about town’ but rarely of a ‘woman about town’; of a ‘ladies’ man’ but not a ‘gentlemen’s lady’; of ‘womanly’ curves and wiles, but ‘manly’ handshakes and jawlines.

“As the usage of English speakers changes over time, the dictionary changes to reflect that new lexical terrain. The current cultural moment has seen an increasing acknowledgement of the real-life impact that words can have on individuals and groups. As this awareness leads to changes in linguistic behaviour, the dictionary will seek to record them,” Martin said. 

About the author:

Adam Daly

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel