Oxford Dictionary needs to update its sexist definition of 'woman'

One of the world’s oldest and most respected universities, Oxford, says it believes in the ‘transformative power’ of education to ‘inspire progress and realise human potential’.

Grand idea. So how come, the world-renowned dictionary that takes its name, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), pushes misogynistic and crass definitions of women?

That’s the question raised by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi a few months back in the feminist group I am a member of, Fawcett East London.

Searching on Google for ‘woman synonyms’; ‘besom’, ‘piece’, ‘bit’, ‘mare’, ‘baggage’, ‘wench’, ‘petticoat’, ‘frail’, ‘bird’, ‘bint’, ‘biddy’, ‘filly’, ‘bitch’ are some of the synonyms that came up as results.

We were outraged and couldn’t find a valid justification to this debauchery of sexism so we decided to support Giovanardi in changing this.

‘Woman’ should not be associated with ‘bitch’ or any of the above words, and certainly not sanctioned by the institution whose dictionary is the ‘accepted authority on the English language’ –in its own words. This is the dictionary that’s widely used in schools, libraries, universities and homes.

That is why we launched a petition on Change.org to take sexism out of the dictionary.

As a French woman who moved to England mostly because of my love for the English language, I feel let down and disrespected by Oxford University Press.

Being aware of the influence of the English language, often coined as the universal language, in dictating and communicating politics, economic and societal changes, I worry about the repercussions of such sexist definitions.

From classrooms, to search engines (the same definition appears on Google, Yahoo, and Bing, seemingly via content licensing), its influence is everywhere. There are countless occasions where those sexist definitions and synonyms will be seen, digested and incorporated into everyday speech.

Being constantly reminded of the negative association between woman and wench, woman and bitch, or woman and filly, legitimises the notion that women are inferior to men and do not deserve to be treated respectfully and equally.

There is an argument that the dictionary reflects the use of words and their meanings throughout history, but the context of these words is not clear from a quick online search when the vile synonyms crop up next to ‘woman’?

Historically racist terms and descriptions of minorities often don’t appear as synonyms in the dictionary. We realise they are offensive and best left to a former time. So why do derogatory definitions of over 50 per cent of the world’s population remain in the dictionary? This is sexism.

Let’s also remember who has used sexist slurs against women throughout history – men. This makes the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ a record of ‘what men have said and written over the years,’ as linguist professor Deborah Cameron has pointed out.

We hope the Oxford English Dictionary, which calls itself the ‘unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words’ is ready to live in the present.

The dictionary is continually updated and now boasts modern terms ‘hasbian’, ‘hangry’ and  ‘snowflake’ – but is yet to take any notice of the sexism in its pages.

Today we ask Oxford to play its part in stamping out prejudice by amending the definition of ‘woman’. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword.

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