The leaders of Women’s Aid and the Women’s Equality party are among the signatories to an open letter calling on Oxford University Press to change its dictionaries’ “sexist” definitions of the word “woman”.
The letter points out that some Oxford Dictionaries’ definitions of the word include synonyms such as “bitch” and “maid”, and says that derogatory and sexist examples of usage include, “God, woman. Will you just listen?”
The definitions for “man”, meanwhile, include “a person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness”.
“Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch. It is but one sad, albeit extremely damaging, example of everyday sexism. And that should be explained clearly in the dictionary entry used to describe us,” says the letter, which is asking OUP, which publishes the Oxford Dictionary of English, as well as the online Oxford Dictionaries, to change their entries.
The letter, published in time for International Women’s Day on 8 March, is the latest move in a campaign that was launched last year by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi. Giovanardi’s petition calling for a change to the dictionary’s definition of woman has now been signed by more than 30,000 people. On Tuesday, she said that she hoped having the backing of women’s rights campaigners and linguists would strengthen the message.
The Oxford Dictionary of English is the source licensed by Apple and Google, meaning that when users search for the definition of woman on either, they are given a list of “similar” words including chick, bint, popsy, wifie, besom, wench and maid. Terms such as piece, bit, mare, baggage and bitch are labelled derogatory and offensive by the dictionary, but words including bint and wench are not.
“It might not end everyday sexism or the patriarchy but it’s a good start,” says the letter, which is also signed by linguists and academics as well as Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality party, Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication at Oxford and Nicki Norman, acting chief executive of the Women’s Aid Federation of England. “Synonyms and examples, such as these, when offered without context, reinforce negative stereotypes about women and centre men. That’s dangerous because language has real world implications, it shapes perceptions and influences the way women are treated,” the letter continues.
A spokeswoman for OUP said the company had finished reviewing the dictionary and thesaurus entries for terms for women and girls, and that changes, including more labels that show certain terms are offensive or dated, would be “visible across various platforms in the next few weeks”.
“Our dictionaries reflect rather than dictate how language is used. This is driven solely by evidence of how real people use English in their daily lives. This independent editorial approach means that our dictionaries provide an accurate representation of language, even where it means recording senses and example uses of words that are offensive or derogatory, and which we wouldn’t necessarily employ ourselves. In cases where words and uses may be considered offensive, they are clearly labelled as such. This helps our readers to understand the connotations of terms when looking them up and also acts as a lasting record of the way in which language evolves,” the spokeswoman said.
The letter in full
Did you know that if you are a woman, the dictionary will refer to you as a “bitch” or a “maid”? And that a man is “a person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness” or “a man of honour” and the “man of the house”?
These are, according to the dictionary, the synonyms for “woman” alongside a wealth of derogatory and equally sexist examples – “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman” or “Don’t be daft, woman!”
Synonyms and examples such as these, when offered without context, reinforce negative stereotypes about women and centre men. That’s dangerous because language has real world implications, it shapes perceptions and influences the way women are treated.
Dictionaries are essential reference tools, and the Oxford Dictionary of English is an essential learning tool, used in libraries and schools around the world. It is also the source licensed by Apple and Google, namely the most read online dictionary in the world.
Its inclusion of derogatory terms used to describe women should aim at exposing everyday sexism, not perpetuating it.
Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch. It is but one sad, albeit extremely damaging, example of everyday sexism. And that should be explained clearly in the dictionary entry used to describe us.
We are calling on Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford Dictionary of English, as well as the online Oxford Dictionaries (www.lexico.com), to change their entry for the word “woman”. It might not end everyday sexism or the patriarchy but it’s a good start.
Maria Beatrice Giovanardi and the campaign team
Mandu Reid, leader of Women’s Equality Party
Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication, Oxford University
Nicki Norman, acting CEO of Women’s Aid Federation of England
Fiona Dwyer, CEO at Solace Women’s Aid
Estelle du Boulay, Director of Rights of Women
Laura Coryton, tampon tax petition starter, Period Poverty Task Force Member at the Government Equalities Office, alumni of University of Oxford (MSt in Women’s Studies)
Gabby Edlin, CEO and Founder of Bloody Good Period
The Representation Project
Zoe Dronfield, trustee at Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service
Gweh Rhys, founder and CEO of Women in the City
David Adger, professor of linguistics, Queen Mary University of London
Dr Christine Cheng, author and lecturer in war studies at King’s College
Dr Christina Scharff, author and reader in gender, media and culture at King’s College Judith Large, senior research fellow