oday, Merriam-Webster announced an additional dictionary definition of “they” to refer “to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” And yesterday, The Bookseller reported that editors at Oxford University Press are investigating a possible update to the OUP’s dictionary definition of “woman” in response to an online petition. The petition reads, “ ‘Change Oxford Dictionary’s Sexist Definition of Woman.’ Join Maria Beatrice [Giovanardi] and 29,309 supporters today.”
Curious, I clicked on it.
“Have you ever searched online for the definition of a woman?”
Why yes, Change.org. As a matter of fact, I have.
“‘Bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly’ — these are the words which the Oxford’s English Dictionary online tells us mean the same as ‘woman’. This sexist dictionary must change.”
“Over a third of young women aged between 18 to 24 have been targeted by online abuse. We can take a serious step towards reducing the harm this is causing to our young women and girls by looking at our language — and this starts with the dictionary.”
Um. Mightn’t it start instead with reminding ourselves that online is not real life? Then by reading — which is far superior to “looking at” our language — from Chaucer to Muriel Spark and beyond. And having read, might we conclude that redefining “woman” is rash and unnecessary?
Ms. Giovanardi has a different idea.
This petition is to ask Oxford University Press to:
1. Eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise [Ha!] women and/or connote men’s ownership of women;
2. Enlarge the dictionary’s entry for ‘woman’;
3. Include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman etc.,
[Brackets and emphasis added.]
Let’s examine the petition’s objectives in order.
First, one obvious difficulty in banishing potentially offensive synonyms for “woman” is that much of this is subjective and situational. While “bitch” is typically derogatory, it can also be used ironically by women themselves. (This is similar to how Dave Chapelle uses the N-word. Crude, sure. Controversial, certainly. But also, complex.) As for “biddy,” “filly,” and “wench” — those seem rather jolly and unobjectionable to me. Definitely not words that would cause me to get my knickers (a.k.a. panties) in a twist. Is this phrase also sexist, I wonder? Per the Collins English dictionary:
If someone is getting their knickers in a twist about something, they are getting annoyed or upset about it without good reason. [British, humorous, informal]: She didn’t know why he was getting his knickers in a twist.
Ah. She didn’t know why he. Probably okay, then.
So will removing the words from the dictionary help prevent sexist and misogynistic abuse? Unlikely. As it happens, I’ve recently been discussing death threats — purely academic, of course — with a number of friends and mentors. What’s interesting is that not a single one recommends altering the dictionary as a means of preventing them. No one has yet suggested taking out all the words that might spell out variations of “I am going to kill you.” That would be silly, since hijacking the English language isn’t apt to directly influence the way people behave. If someone is a sexist pig, he is still going to be a sexist pig after you’ve removed “biddy” and “bint” from the dictionary. Likewise, if someone is not a sexist pig, he probably won’t become one because he sees the words “petticoat” and “frail” in the dictionary.
But it is true that language can influence the way people think. And here is where I draw your attention to points two and three — to those cunning little Greeks, laying quietly inside the wooden horse’s belly. For this is not really about redefining women in order to protect them — it is about “enlarging the definition” of women so that it includes men.
This petition is not the first of its kind. Which is why Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, a stay-at-home mom of four from England, spent a little under $1,000 on a dictionary campaign last year in response. Keen-Minshull had the original definition of woman — “noun: adult human female” — pasted in black and white on a billboard in Liverpool. Its simplicity symbolized the obviousness of its message. It broadcast truthfulness in a time of lies.
Until, that is, a male activist made such a fuss that the billboard company took it down, claiming it had been “misled,” and apologized for any offence caused. Mrs. Keen-Minshull was not deterred, however. She appeared on Sky News, wearing a T-Shirt version of the campaign. And when the interviewer suggested that her message might be offensive, she replied incredulously, “What an absurd thing to say.” And she’s right.
As Orwell explained in “Politics and the English Language”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” And this is exactly what the activists are hoping for.
When I spoke to Mrs. Keen-Minshull yesterday, she told me that she has since been busy making many more t-shirts and badges, which you can order here. Better hurry, though. Her latest — “Choose your own language #itisnot1984” — has already sold out.