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.