“woman = adult human female! My dictionary says so.”
Most trans related discussions with anti trans people I see come down to language use. I see this kind of comment everywhere amongst anti trans activists who seem to think this is the ultimate gotcha. But it really isn’t and if we look a little deeper than the appeal to authority fallacy we can see a fundamental misunderstanding of how dictionaries even work.
Obviously, the appeal to authority fallacy is enough to combat this ridiculousness, given that just because a supposed authority said a thing; it doesn’t mean its automatically right. As alleged feminists I’m sure they’ve heard of the Monty Hall problem and story behind it.
In short, a woman was laughed at and made fun of by experts because she said something correct which sounded counter intuitive. The experts thought they were right because they were the experts — so of course they know best. But they actually didn’t. This is the appeal to authority fallacy, experts can be wrong too.
But lets go a little deeper. How do dictionaries work? How are definitions decided?
Full disclosure: I’ve not studied linguistics and this is all just information I’ve picked up from reading various articles and stuff. I too, can be wrong here. If you think I am, hit me up in the comments below.
When we talk about language use there are often two schools of thought at work. Prescriptivism and descriptivism. Most English dictionaries are descriptive, that is their purpose is merely to describe the way a word is used. This is the reason why the word “literally” had its definition updated to include the figurative use of the word. Prescriptivism on the other hand believes that dictionaries are for setting the rules of how we use language.
From a prescriptivist perspective the word you write down in the dictionary and the definition you give it is just how that word works from now on. Dictionaries which are prescriptive are more like rule books than they are like filing cabinets for language.
And that’s kind of troublesome for the evolution of our language. It’s hard to progress as a society when our language remains in the dark ages. For example; imagine if people still called gay people sodomites — because “homosexual” wasn’t coined in the 1800s any more, nor was “gay” in the 1940s. Why would we need new words for these things at all, the rule book already said we should call men who have sex with men “sodomites” right?
At what point in the history of dictionaries and words existing and meaning certain things do we stop and say “yep this is how it’s always going to be now.” Why that specific spot? Why do we get to choose it?
This is why dictionaries tend to be descriptive instead, and focus solely on the way a word is used commonly. It’s also for this reason the entry in our dictionaries for things like “woman” reflect what the anti trans activists want to believe. That trans women aren’t women, because we aren’t of the female sex.
There is some debate amongst language nerds about whether the OED is actually descriptivist or not. Some people are erring on the side of not because it doesn’t update very often.
For centuries we have known the word woman to mean female and that’s how its commonly been used. So of course, that’s the entry the dictionary lists. But all it takes for this to change is that we start using woman to refer to trans women… which we have been doing for years at this point.
This means that the dictionary is likely to change in regard to this word and many others. Including man, gay and lesbian. As the evidence for the use of “woman” in reference to trans women is extremely clear.
“Transwoman”, the current entry which is often used to define trans women can clearly be seen used less than both “transgender woman” and also “trans woman”. Where transgender/trans are used as an adjective, describing the type of woman that person is. For example, a tall woman.
I’ve contacted dictionaries about this and they have already stated that they are working on updating these terms to reflect how they’re used now.
But then remains the question: what should the definition of women be? And… Well…if you’re asking this question clearly you haven’t been paying attention. As our dictionaries are descriptive, our definitions will reflect whatever it is that the word is being used to refer to. An example of this is “she”, which already contains entries in the Oxford English dictionary specifying it refers to inanimate objects:
By the power of prescriptivism, anti trans faux feminists are basically saying anyone who uses “she” pronouns for themselves is a boat.
This entry exists purely because it’s common to say stuff like “she’s a beauty” in reference to things like cars. And so the rising commonality of using woman in reference to trans women will inevitably lead to an inclusive definition — and then where will you prescriptivists be?
Will you start cussing out the dictionary? Doesn’t seem very prescriptivist to me, the rules are the rules and you’re supposed to blindly just agree with the authority on the subject right? Or do you only agree with the rules when they suit you? Do you now realise how you’re backing yourself into a linguistics corner here?
Oh and ps. I don’t actually need to come up with an inclusive definition of the word woman to show how and why you’re wrong about what you believe, Helen. Al I need to do is disprove what you’ve said, which I think I’ve done pretty well here.
But I will give you one just to prove you wrong about the whole “their definition will rely on stereotypes!” crap. And all I will have to do is add one word.
A woman is typically an adult human female.
(send this post to everyone you see using the dictionary wrong. Also send it to the dictionaries to help put pressure on them to update their stuff quicker.)