“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.
“She was utterly confused about what had happened.”
“She was feeling nervous, unsure of herself; she was unsure how to reply.”
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.
“She’s in great pain.”
“She was hot with shame.”
“She was recovering from the flu and was very weak.”
“The women were portrayed as passive victims.”
“She had to mourn for her friends who died in the accident.”
“She tried to think about the future without feeling afraid.”
“She was afraid of antagonizing him.”
“She seemed reluctant to discuss the matter.”
“She has never been shy about discussing her efforts to raise aesthetic standards.”
“She first became interested in cooking at the age of 17.”
“They helped her with domestic chores.”
“She felt guilty now and a little uneasy.”
“The petrified child clung to her mother.”
“His thinking is reflected in his later autobiography.”
“He put up a brave fight before losing.”
“He has been appointed finance director.”
“He created a thirty-acre lake.”
“He possesses more talent than any other player.”
“He invented an improved form of the steam engine.”
“He bought me a new dress.”
“He asserted his innocence.”
“He was tired after a day’s work.”
“His staff members are in awe of him.”
“His portrait hangs in a place of honor.”
In other cases, examples also reinforce and perpetuate sexist stereotypes or even toxic masculinity on occasion.
“Her house was the admiration of everyone.”
“The outlines of her face.”
“She gave me an encouraging smile.”
“He’s getting increasingly panicky over the lack of cash.”
“In his agitation, he was unable to speak.”
“If he was that smart, he would never have been tricked.”
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.
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 Dictionary.com 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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