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The Left Gazette

“She’s such a child!”: And Other Unfortunate Examples in the Dictionary

One of my students wrote recently wondering how the words “confused” and “unsure” are different. As I often do in such cases, I turned to the built-in Oxford dictionary with my MacBook Pro, specifically the New Oxford American Dictionary. While taking a screenshot of these definitions and replying to my student, I noticed that the sentences describing “confused” and “unsure” both use “she” pronouns and do so in such a way that reinforces stereotypes.

The words in bold being the word defined.

I immediately started looking up different words to see if there might be any kind of pattern. I found problematic arrangements almost everywhere. And it’s not just an Apple issue: While example sentences occasionally vary, these problems also exist with the Oxford dictionaries used by Google and by Microsoft Word.

The most recent full edition of this dictionary from 2010 tends to use “she” pronouns to illustrate negative words, and “he” pronouns for positive words.

In other cases, examples also reinforce and perpetuate sexist stereotypes or even toxic masculinity on occasion.

Notice the differences?

“Confused,” “petrified,” “shame,” “unsure,” and “weak” are associated with women, “awe,” “brave,” and “created” with men. Further, example sentences generally associate women with cleaning, cooking, fearing, regretting; men with buying, fighting, supervising, and working. Stereotypes all around.

Thinking makes women afraid, according to this dictionary, but thinking helps men be published writers, be leaders, and be more accomplished than others. Moreover, while men and their intelligence are criticized when tricked, women are too occupied resting or keeping house to do much thinking.

Dictionaries are never neutral.

Screenshot from the app Dictionary on my MacBook Pro.

Anything but. Dictionary-sentences illustrating the meanings of words matter just as much as a word’s current and official definitions. Reading the definition “an immature or irresponsible person” under “child” is one thing. Reading “she’s such a child!” as the example sentence is another and shapes not the word’s connotation but curtails the autonomy of women.

I don’t think that this sexism in Oxford’s dictionary is necessarily the result of deliberate actions. Certainly, countless lexicographers make such comprehensive dictionaries possible. (And to be clear, it’s not confined to Oxford, as a cursory examination the and the Macmillan Dictionary show.)

And yet, sexist sentences in supposedly neutral dictionaries do speak to how extensively unconscious sexism and historical baggage is interwoven with our everyday thoughts and our uses of words.

It further speaks to institutional failures that Oxford’s writers and reviewers have yet to truly fix these problems, as other people have previously criticized example sentences, most notably anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan and his colleagues and others drawing inspiration from his work. And indeed, for at least a half century, feminists have addressed how dictionary definitions perpetuate sexism.

The good news is that solutions are mostly a relatively easy, if time-demanding task. And the Oxford has already fixed some problems, although seemingly only when specific sentences have been called out and have garnered enough attention.

All definitions just need different and more effective example sentences, examples that empower people and challenge stereotypes, that use gender-neutral pronouns, or that avoid pronouns altogether. More description in example sentences would also result in greater effectiveness.

For instance, an example sentence for “child” (“an immature or irresponsible person”) could be: “The parent acted like a child last night by blaming the babysitter for the child’s mess.” Alternatively, the use of “child” in such cases could be labeled as “dated” and “ageist,” as age in no way equates to responsibility or maturity. We’ve seen with recent political history that children live up to higher standards than many adults!

The harder part is looking to further eliminate bias word-by-word in all of its additional oppressive forms, including the ableist, the nationalist, the racist. We should expect this to be a never-ending challenge of gradual improvement for all dictionaries.

When my students, or anyone for that matter, use the dictionary to learn about a word, I want them to always feel included, empowered, and informed. To Oxford’s credit, not every example is problematic. If you look up “strong,” readers will see the word illustrated with “she cut through the water with her strong arms.” We also need to see positive examples of “brave,” “honorable,” and “talented” women, too.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda (@AJP_PhD) holds a Ph.D. in History and teaches women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religious studies; and English at the University of Houston. Previous articles can be found in The Conversation, History News Network, Inside Higher Ed, Time, and The Washington Post, among others.

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FT/NTT professor @UHouston . Writer. EIC @ConceptionsRev . HIST MA & PhD. ENGL MA. Starting SOCI MS at @tamuc . I have Neurofibromatosis. I love cats. Views