Dictionary’s ‘sexist’ examples prompt row

Setting a bad example: Readers have taken issue with ‘sexist’ examples in the OED.

Rabid feminists, nagging wives: an anthropologist has accused the Oxford English Dictionary of publishing misogynistic examples. Is he right? How can a dictionary be sexist, anyway?

When you hear the word ‘rabid’, what comes to mind? A dog foaming at the mouth? A football fan driven mad by an unfair red card? A passionate advocate of women’s rights?

If you rely on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for your definitions, chances are you will go with the third one. Under the entry for ‘rabid’, the dictionary gives ‘a rabid feminist’ as an example of usage. Turn to ‘nagging’, and you get ‘a nagging wife’; for ‘psyche’, ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’.

When anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan recently tweeted that some of the OED’s examples reinforce sexist stereotypes, he caused a stir. In its reply tweet, the OED poked fun at him: ‘If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism…’. Twitter users and journalists weighed in. Some took Oman-Reagan’s side, while others accused him of political correctness gone mad.

But the tide soon turned in the anthropologist’s favour, as the OED tweeted an apology and promised to review the example for ‘rabid’. Days later Katherine Connor Martin, the dictionary’s Head of Content Creation, repeated the apology in a blog post.

Martin explained that all examples are taken from real-life texts, and that the OED’s objective in choosing them is to show how the word is typically used. It is a fact, she argued, that feminists are often described as ‘rabid’, to denigrate them. But she then admitted that this ‘controversial and impolitic’ collocation ‘distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning’.

At the heart of the debate is the question whether dictionaries should be descriptive or prescriptive. In other words, should their main purpose be to describe language as it is actually used, for better or worse? Or to give guidance on how to use language – which means it has a duty to warn against offensive usages?

The OED has always claimed to be a descriptive dictionary. Is that a good enough defence?

Words of honour

If a dictionary is to be of any worth, say some, it must give a faithful description of a language as it is used. Editors should not pass judgement on what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ language – after all, readers are not interested in the personal views of a bunch of academics. If sexism permeates the English language, it is the OED’s job to reflect this, not hide it.

This is disingenuous, say others. A dictionary can never give an unbiased description of a language: picking examples is a question of judgement. If the OED’s editors recognise that examples they have chosen are sexist, they should include a note that makes this clear. In this sense at least, dictionaries should prescribe guidelines on usage.

You Decide

  1. Should the OED remove the controversial example sentences?
  2. Is there such thing as ‘proper’ use of language?

Activities

  1. Write two example sentences for each of the following five words: ‘bright’, ‘gradually’, ‘storm’, ‘speech’, ‘run’. Make each pair of sentences as different as possible.
  2. What steps could the OED’s editors take to ensure that such controversies do not happen again? Give your thoughts in a short presentation to the class.

Some People Say...

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

George Orwell

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s just one dictionary. Big deal.
Not quite true. Other dictionaries were found to contain sexist examples, though not as many. In any case, the OED is probably the most influential of all English dictionaries: it is downloaded on all Macs, iPhones and iPads, and provides the definitions that come up on Google searches.
But how much influence does a dictionary really have?
A good deal: how many times have you opened one to check the spelling or meaning of a word? Some say that this is why dictionaries are always, to some extent, prescriptive. They set standards for usage, which people take seriously. So if they are to include offensive definitions or examples, the editors must make clear that they are controversial, and that the dictionary doesn’t endorse them.

Word Watch

Rabid
The OED defines this usage as ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’; it illustrates this and other words with negative connotations in examples applied to describe women; ‘rabid feminist’ could imply that fighting for women’s rights is an extreme or fanatical behaviour and that feminists are typically ‘rabid’. Critics argue that ‘rabid fan’ or ‘rabid supporter’ would be more neutral, and so a better example.
Oxford English Dictionary
The largest dictionary of the English language. Versions are available online. The latest printed edition, published in 1989, came to 21,728 pages.
Michael Oman-Reagan
Not the first to point to problems with these examples. See feminist writer Nordette Adams’ blog post from July 2014 in Become An Expert.
Promised to review
Although they both expressed regret over ‘rabid feminist’, neither the OED’s Twitter page nor Martin referred to the other examples cited by Oman-Reagan and his supporters.
Collocation
Two words frequently used together. OED examples include ‘strong tea’ and ‘heavy drinker’.

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