Campaign to take sexism out of dictionary | Daily News


Campaign to take sexism out of dictionary

From the Oxford English Dictionary to Google’s own, the synonyms given for woman are shockingly derogatory – while the entries for ‘man’ are almost universally positive. Now one campaign is trying to take sexism out of the dictionary.

Think of the word “woman” and do you automatically think “b****”? Or hussy, baggage or bit? These are, according to various traditional dictionaries, synonyms for “woman”, which came as a bit of a shock to Maria Beatrice Giovanardi as she typed the word into a search engine one night in January. Giovanardi was seeking inspiration as she tried to name a new project for the women’s rights group she was involved with and was looking for alternative words for “woman”. What she discovered instead was a wealth of derogatory entries. “They are offensive and I don’t believe they are synonyms for ‘woman’,” she says. “I don’t understand why they are there.”

Giovanardi started looking into it more deeply, using the default dictionaries on different search engines. And she began to explore whether men were given similar treatment. They weren’t – the most derogatory synonym for “man” given by dictionaries she found were “bozo” and “geezer”. She was alarmed, too, by the example sentences given below the definitions. Many, she noticed, were themselves sexist, involving stereotypes and centring men. “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman,” is one from Oxford Dictionaries.

Last week, Giovanardi launched a petition to get dictionary makers – particularly Oxford University Press (OUP), which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Oxford Dictionaries, the source used by Apple and Google – to cut sexist illustrative sentences and derogatory words. “Not to remove them from the dictionary, but remove them from under ‘woman’,” she says. “History is important, but these are just not synonyms of woman. Bitch can be in the dictionary, but it shouldn’t be under woman in my opinion.”

Her call was shared on Twitter by the Fawcett Society. “The language we use is fundamentally framed and determined by the patriarchal society in which we live,” says Sam Smethers, the organisation’s chief executive. “The fact that derogatory terms are associated with the word ‘woman’ indicates how biased our language can be.” We need to change, she says, “the way we think of something as important and as fundamental as the word woman”.

On Lexico, the site run by Oxford Dictionaries and, synonyms for women include bitch, baggage, piece and filly. The example sentences chosen to illustrate usage are bizarre. “One of his sophisticated London women” is one, as if the woman exists solely in relation to, and as a possession of, the man. Another reads: “The idea that women are real human beings with thoughts and emotions is played down.”

For “man”, the examples are far more impressive. “I’m as ambitious as the next man”; “A battle for power between a union man and an intellectual is looming”. Other examples under “man” make unnecessarily sexist points about women. “She was more of a man than any of them,” is one; “It should be the sort of manly thing I get my man to do, but he leaves computers to me” is another – both implying that women are the weaker, more cowardly, more stupid gender.

The examples of usage are better on the Collins dictionary site (the dictionary used by the Guardian), including “she was a senior BBC woman”, but it also offers offensive slang names including “ho” as a synonym for “woman”. The worst synonym for “man” Collins could come up with is dude or geezer.

On the Merriam-Webster dictionary site, the fourth definition of “woman” is a servant and the fifth is a wife or mistress. The definitions of man include “an alumnus of or student at a college or university” – as in a Cambridge man – though this is not a definition that is extended to women.

“If you look at the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary,” says Cameron, “one sense of ‘woman’ that has quite a lot of illustrative quotes is as a man’s possession. And that reflected the law – men did own women and so usage grew from that. There are a huge load of entries that basically mean prostitute.”

However, she says, there is a difference between a dictionary used as a scholarly reference – the OED being the prime example – and a casual dictionary and thesaurus installed as a default on your phone or laptop, or the ones used by Google. “I can’t see any reason at all why that particular list of synonyms should appear in a dictionary that people are not using to research the history of culture, which is what they would use the big OED for. If it’s going to contain synonyms, including out-of-date and derogatory ones, I don’t know what purpose they serve in that context.” In more comprehensive works, sensitive words are marked as offensive. On the definitions of “woman” that Google and Yahoo throw up, “We’ve got no guidance on usage at all. Anyone who does think bitch is a straight synonym for woman is going to find themselves getting into fights.”

What good do feminist dictionaries and campaigns do? Can society be changed by changing the language? “I think they happen together,” says Cameron. “I don’t think changing language on its own usually works, but I wouldn’t say language is unimportant. Language is a way in which new meanings or objections to old meanings are transmitted, so it does matter.” Russell says: “I do think that using language conscientiously can be a means to improving our own thinking about the world and our interactions in it.”

Dictionaries are no longer dusty reference books – we carry them on our phones in our pockets; search engines tacitly endorse whatever definition they serve up from whatever source they have licensed (presumably the most cost-effective one). As Kramarae points out, “Now the faulty and hurtful definitions and categories are being built into artificial intelligence systems that separate, classify and rank people through automated and unaccessible processes.”

We should, says Russell, “be more ambitious in our dictionary criticism. I do think that campaigns such as this one start productive discussions about words and their meanings. We ought to care what definitions are made most readily available and why.”


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