These Wimmins Need Some Mansplaining About Dictionaries

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An outbreak of stupidity here. The complain is that a dictionary records the language as it is rather than as these besoms wish it were. Which is to miss the point of a dictionary altogether. Another way to make this same point is to insist that we are British, talking about the English language, not French talking in that incomprehensible clatter about the French language.

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

Well, yes. And now to reveal the truth to these termagants.

In French there is indeed that Academie. Which attempts to insist upon the use of this word or that. Which tries to tell people what is French and how it should be used.

English does not have an never has had that top down approach. Instead English is what English people speak. It’s one of the great strengths of the language, its adaptability over time. It is a bottom up (fnarr, fnarr) language – what gets into the dictionaries is what people use. It’s even possible to go ask them – as I have done over the word “bansturbation” – what is required for inclusion. Regular use over a period of time, sufficiently regular and in print. “Sufficiently” being a moveable feast, as is “over time”. Thus that nicking of “bansturbation” by me from Harry Haddock in a Times piece in 2007 would meet the time criterion but not the wide usage one as yet. Pity, as I’d rather like to make it into the lexicography as the first user in print.

Or, as the dictionary compilers themselves put it:

“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.

In English, as not in French, dictionaries are positive – as with economics. They are not normative. They record what is the use of a word in the language of the time, not what ought to be.

Which leaves us with what we ought to say to these wimmins. Possibly something long the lines that bints too stupid to know what a dictionary is probably shouldn’t be attempting to define what a dictionary is or how it’s complied.

All of this is brave, spirited and tough but sometimes the truth does have to be pointed out to the little woman as any patriarch knows. However much they bitch about it.

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Mr Womby
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Mr Womby

Aren’t their job titles/fake charity names depressing?

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

But there’s one in there calling himself a Professor of linguistics, who ought to have some passing knowledge of what a dictionary is and how it’s supposed to function.

Ben S
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Ben S

I should think control of the English language is a linguistics professor’s wet dream….

Boganboy
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Boganboy

Trans perhaps??

Phoenix44
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Phoenix44

So dictionaries should define words according to what a bunch of self-selected people say should be the definition. Go ahead, not one single thing will change. People who want to use a derogatory word to describe women will still do so. And no doubt this lot will take years to go through and create their lovely new dictionary and have many amusing but vitriolic arguments whilst doing so. That will keep them occupied and keep us entertained.

John B
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John B

‘the dictionary’… there is no such beast. There are numerous dictionaries and they vary in what they include in their definitions.

I have just checked a dictionary and none of the descriptions described in the letter were there.

Barks
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Barks

You’d best try another.

jgh
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jgh

Just a a couple of months ago there was some daft bint on the wireless demanding “I want the definition of Drag Queen changed!!!!” She even went to the Oxford Dictionary people who calmly tried to explain that if people did indeed use the term “drag queen” to mean something other than what was currently listed in the dictionary (a man pretending to be a women in an overly exagerated manner for entertainment purposes), then those people – by virtue of them themselves using that usage – would change (or rather, add to) the meaning. There was no way to… Read more »

Spike
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Spike

They are welcome to add to the definition, and otherwise enter the Marketplace of Ideas. Though not necessarily dominate. That’s the beauty of using a language lacking an official Academy.

Chester Draws
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Chester Draws

Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch.

It is demeaning, but then that’s the point. We all have words that we use deliberately to be rude — and these wimmins will be no different. (Likely they choose to use words like “fascist” quite happily, with very little concern that they are “dehumanising” anybody.)

They conveniently forget all the rude words aimed directly at men. “Dick” isn’t used as a nice term. I shan’t list some ruder ones, but plenty of them exist.