Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?
On January 21st, 2016 I noticed these sexist example sentences in The Oxford Dictionary of English and started tweeting some of them. This is default dictionary on Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. Anyone using a Mac, an iPad, or iPhone will get definitions from this dictionary. So why is it filled with explicitly sexist usage examples? Here are those I’ve found so far.
As the Oxford dictionary says in the usage example for “sexism”:
“sexism in language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees women.”
Shouldn’t the usage examples in this dictionary reflect that understanding of sexism in language?
After this discussion on twitter started, I found this amazing article from 2014 by Nordette Adams (@nordettewrites). Please read:
Here is some of the best reporting on this from the media:
Women in the World & The New York Times: Amidst accusations of sexism, Oxford Dictionaries will review definitions
After initially only posting a snarky reply, Oxford responded more seriously on January 23rd promising to review the example used for “rabid.” No word yet on other examples or their example selection process.
Journalists and others have asked for more about this story. Here’s some background and further thoughts about this.
How did you discover these examples?
First, everyone should note that in 2014 Nordette Adams (@nordettewrites) brought this issue up. Please read her blog post about it here:
Before I came across that article, I noticed the “rabid feminist” example when I was preparing to post a few tweets about politics. I’ve recently noticed people getting so attached to their political candidates they aren’t thinking about platforms or policy any more — just political party loyalty and “cult of personality.” The first word that came to my mind for the zealous, unthinking support of a candidate regardless of their policy (like loyalty to a sports team) was “rabid.” So before I tweeted it, I looked it up to check my instinct about the really negative sense of the word, and then I saw “rabid feminist.” I thought that was so outdated, sexist, and strange, like something one might have heard 30 years ago, so I shared it.
Having studied socio-cultural linguistics, I know that dictionaries are not only describing language, they also prescribe and shape the way language and meaning is produced and standardized, whether that is the intention of a publisher or not. As linguistic anthropologist Sarah Shulist (MacEwan University) said, one of the problems here is how “dictionaries’ use of loaded language” is “disguised as neutral.”
What about the reaction to this on Twitter?
When I first tweeted about this, I wasn’t “calling Oxford out” but just drawing attention to something I noticed — Amy Dentata on Twitter, described this really well. She wrote “The Outrage Machine operates by exaggerating the people they are responding to, and then getting outraged at that.” That’s exactly what happened. I posted my tweet to pose a question, have a discussion, hear from all the diverse amazing people I follow on Twitter, and learn what they thought about this thing I noticed.
I’ve heard from thousands of people wondering why Oxford replied the way they did. One of the earliest replies to Oxford’s tweet was from Kat Latham who said: “Surely your response to valid criticism of sexist definitions isn’t a dismissive tweet implying @OmanReagan is rabid abt fem.”
Oxford replied by saying “If only there were a word to describe how strong you felt about feminism.” Well there are — many. And as Tyler Morrison pointed out in a comment online, “Passionate? Heartfelt? Fervid? Your synonym game is weak, Oxford.”
What do you hope to see from Oxford now?
After their reaction, I wanted to see Oxford make a clear statement denouncing all of the misogynistic abuse people are getting simply for having this conversation. They’re in a position to come out strongly against that and to point out why languge matters so much in these discussions. Second, they should listen to the questions people are asking them about these example sentences. They should listen to women about this. There are writers, scholars, doctors, philosophers, and everyday women who are clearly telling Oxford what they think about this on Twitter. Oxford should listen to these voices.
My understanding is that the examples I’ve posted come from a large selection of sentences representing what Oxford calls “real world” use. The people I’ve heard from on Twitter are saying they’d like to know more about how the editorial decisions are made to choose one example over another. Obviously when they include “rabid feminism” they are actually choosing that example sentence from possible sentences, so why that one? Why are they choosing particular sentences which reenforce sexist stereotypes? Speaking to more anthropologists and socio-cultural linguists about these issues would one way for Oxford to start addressing the questions people are bringing up.
This is not, at the moment, about definitions, but about “example sentences.” It’s not an issue that Oxford documents and studies how the English language is and has been used, this is the work they do. The issue so many people raised so clearly is: Why does Oxford choose examples sentences for these abbreviated forms of their dictionary (like in OS X, iOS, and on Google), that reproduce sexist stereotypes?
We might also ask Oxford: Why do you choose to use gendered examples for words that are not about gender, like nagging, grating, housework, doctor, rabid, etc?
When Oxford editorially selects example sentences reproducing sexist stereotypes, they are making implicit, prescriptive statements about gender and language. If Oxford believes it is important to tell users that the word “shrill” has historically been applied primarily to women’s voices, they should say that clearly, not cover it up and hide it in a usage example. There are examples of Oxord doing this explicitly with other words, like “sexism” where they say “typically against women.”
If Oxford thinks it’s important to tell users the word “shrill,” for example, has historically been applied primarily to women’s voices in a pejorative and sexist way, but not to men’s voices, they should say that explicitly as a note of historical, cultural, contextual reference for the reader.
Oxford might also consider the 2015 word of the year from The American Dialect Society (@americandialect) which was singular “they,” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. This form of “they” was also on Oxford’s own short list for words of the year in 2015. When gender is included in the example sentences for words where gender is not part of the definition, it’s important to ask what kind of impact that has, what sort of work those examples are doing in reproducing sexism. Are there alternatives? Yes. We’re always making language by using it.
In a blog post Katherine Connor Martin, Head of Content Creation at Oxford Dictionaries, has explained that Oxford is grateful when readers point out issues with example sentences:
“Needless to say, as in any human enterprise, the selection of example sentences sometimes falls short of the ideal. Often, a real-world example beautifully captures a particular nuance of meaning or usage but involves distractingly peculiar or perplexing details (this phenomenon inspired a fiction project treating dictionary examples as Dadaesque ready-mades). In more troubling cases, a poorly chosen example sentence might inadvertently repeat factually incorrect, prejudiced, or offensive statements from the source. These judgements are subjective, but we do our best to eliminate such examples, and are grateful when readers point them out to us so that we can review our content; in some cases, cultural sensitivities may have evolved since a particular example was originally chosen.”
She also points out why “rabid feminist” was a poor choice for an example sentence:
“In the case of an example which has recently received much attention, of the phrase “rabid feminist” to exemplify the sense of rabid meaning ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’, the example is an accurate representation of the meaning of the word: rabid is used in this way to denigrate the noun it modifies, and the real-life sentence from which the example was taken involved someone denigrating a person described as being a feminist. However, it was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning. A more generic example, like “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan”, would also have been supported by evidence on our corpora, and would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts.”
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Michael Oman-Reagan is an anthropologist and PhD candidate. His doctoral research looks at exploration beyond our solar system, science, interstellar space, SETI, imagination, futures, and science fiction.