On Not Perpetuating Sexist Language

On Not Perpetuating Sexist Language
Sexist Language
Ever aid the weaker sex, engraving by Samuel Calvert (1828 – 1916)
Melbourne Punch, 1855 (VI, p. 150) via State Library Victoria

I recently read an interesting piece by Alison Flood, who reports Oxford University Press (OUP) are replacing the sexist language in example sentences in the Oxford English Dictionaries (OED).

If you don’t know, the OED is the source used by Google and Apple. So when you look up words on those platforms, chances are, that’s where they come from.

Before the change, had you queried “anatomy” for example, you’d have seen the examples:

He left dusty handprints on his lady customers’ anatomies.

and

She was unable to reach for the bag in case she revealed more of her anatomy than she already had.

And now you’ll find:

People should never be reduced to their anatomies

A complaint from Michael Oman-Reagan (PhD Candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland) triggered the OED review. He noticed that the definition of rabid included the example of “rabid feminist.”

Aside from tweeting about it, he queried on Medium:

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?

Michael Oman-Reagan

Indeed.

At the time, Katherine Martin, head of language content and data at OUP said they “never considered” the perpetuation of sexist stereotypes before.

I’m wondering if any of them had ever looked at their dictionary before.

They started a project to review the definitions, and have made about 500 changes so far. And according to Martin, they’ve established new editorial standards and practises so they can “be factually based but not unintentionally cause harm.”

Nice.

Flood also reports some definitions, and synonyms could be considered as offensive. OED claim they “reflect rather than dictate how language is used.”

Which to me is even worse. I refer to a dictionary precisely because I AM looking for instruction. I want not only to know the correct spelling, but the meaning and correct usage too. Not so fussed about the sentences, but as a writer, I am more than capable of making up sentences.

On a related note, I recently watched The Professor and the Madman. It’s about the creation of the first edition of the OED during the nineteenth century. A nice dramatisation of the circumstances (given the allowances you have to make for something based on a true story) surrounding the inclusion of entries by Dr William Minor, a patient at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Were you inclined, you might consider that the editorial hasn’t improved a great deal.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.