Exactly ten years ago, in June 2005, I was contacted by a man from the British Potato Board. He wanted me, in my capacity as a professor of the English language at Oxford University, to endorse the Board’s campaign to get the expression ‘couch potato’ removed from the Oxford English Dictionary. It gave potatoes a bad name, he explained, by suggesting they were unhealthy, when in fact they were virtually a superfood, packed with fibre and vitamin C. The Board wanted the OED to replace ‘couch potato’ with ‘couch slouch’, which would convey the same meaning without unfairly maligning potatoes.
Initially I suspected this was a wind-up; but then a group of people turned up, dressed in potato costumes, to protest outside the offices of the OED’s publisher, Oxford University Press. Basically it was a publicity stunt: I’ve never been sure how serious they were about getting the dictionary to alter its entry. But even if the aim was just to get media coverage for the health benefits of potatoes, the campaign still traded on the popular belief that dictionaries function as a kind of supreme authority on the existence, validity and meaning of words. As if removing ‘couch potato’ from the dictionary were equivalent to banishing it from the language.
This attitude was on display again last week when it was announced that the most recent additions to the OED included an entry for the word cisgender. On one hand you had people triumphantly hailing this news as proof that the word, and by extension the concept it denotes, is both real and legitimate. On the other hand you had people—many of them feminists who dispute the political analysis behind the word—saying that the OED should not be giving legitimacy to such a flawed and biased term.
When I hear this kind of argument I feel pulled in two directions. The linguist part of me wants to defend the OED, explaining–just as I explained to the man from the British Potato Board–that the function of modern dictionaries isn’t to authorize words or make judgments on their value, it’s to document their existence and the way they’re used in the language. The main criterion for adding new words is that they have entered mainstream usage. Cisgender, for instance, used to be a little-known piece of in-group jargon, but now it turns up regularly in publications like newspapers which are aimed at a general audience.
Since the OED is a historical dictionary, whose aim is to chart the development of English vocabulary over time, it’s full of words which are obsolete, arcane, useless, offensive or frankly silly. Like scrolloping, a word that appeared once in the work of Virginia Woolf. Or phlogiston, an 18th century name for a chemical element that never actually existed. Learned discussions of phlogiston completely misrepresented reality, but the word was once in regular use, so the OED records it. It’s now doing the same for cisgender: even if you think the concept is to 21st century gender theory what phlogiston was to 18th century chemistry, there’s no good argument for not including it in a historical dictionary of English.
But if that last paragraph sounds like a straightforward defence of modern dictionary-making as an objective, value-free, scientific enterprise, let me clarify that I don’t think it’s that straightforward. That’s why I said I feel pulled in two directions. I’m a feminist as well as a linguist: I may not agree with those sisters who have complained about the OED’s inclusion of cisgender, but I have no doubt that mainstream dictionaries, including the OED, belong to an androcentric (male-centred) and sexist tradition. Since all major dictionaries rely heavily on past scholarship, the traces of earlier male bias are still highly visible; and some forms of bias have persisted into the present.
Criticizing the male bias of mainstream lexicography was a serious concern for feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, and so was making alternatives to what Mary Daly dubbed the ‘dick-tionary’:
Dick-tionary, n: any patriarchal dictionary: a derivative, tamed and muted lexicon compiled by dicks.
The source I’m quoting here was a product of this alternative tradition: Daly and Caputi’s Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, originally published in 1987. But while Daly’s reputation has kept the Wickedary visible to later generations of feminists, the fact that it was part of a flourishing enterprise of feminist dictionary-making is less well known, as are most of the other dictionaries second wave feminists produced (though many are still available, and I’ve added links where that’s the case).
In 2011, Lindsay Rose Russell published a scholarly article, ‘This is what a dictionary looks like’, which lists 18 examples of feminist dictionaries published between 1970 and 2006 (though the largest number appeared in the 1970s and 1980s). She was prompted to write by the appearance of a weighty tome about the history of lexicography which failed to mention a single feminist dictionary—though it did discuss specialist dictionaries of agriculture, botany, chemistry, law, medicine, seafaring and surnames. This struck Russell as a classic case of feminism being written out of history. Like her article, this post is an attempt to write it back in.
Serious feminist criticism of mainstream/malestream dictionaries began to appear in the early 1970s, when several kinds of systematic male bias were identified. These included
Selection of sources. The pre-existing source material from which lexicographers take their evidence about word-usage (which words are used, and with what range of meanings) has historically been heavily skewed towards texts written by male rather than female authors. While recently some attempt has been made to redress the balance, the overall bias remains an issue.
Androcentrism in selecting and defining words. As more dictionaries have moved online, the pressure to exclude words for reasons of space has been reduced, but in the past editors did have to make judgments on what was important or central and what was trivial or peripheral, and their decisions often reflected a male/masculist perspective. So did some of their definitions: Alma Graham, who was involved in making a non-sexist school dictionary in the early 1970s, cites one dictionary that defined youth as ‘the part of life between childhood and manhood’.
One word the OED treated for decades as both too peripheral and, we might suspect, too distasteful to include, was lesbian. It has been used in print since the 18th century, so by the OED’s usual criteria it would certainly have merited an entry; but it was not only left out of the original edition (along with a number of other words the Victorian editors preferred to pass over in silence), it was also excluded from the supplement produced to update the dictionary in 1933, though the editor at that point did add the term homosexual. When lesbian finally got an entry, in a further supplement published in 1976, one of the quotations used to illustrate its use was this gem from the work of the writer Cecil Day Lewis:
I shall never write real poetry. Women never do, unless they’re invalids, or Lesbians, or something.
This brings us neatly to another kind of bias feminists criticized in the 1970s:
Sexism in illustrative quotations. The OED isn’t the only dictionary that gives examples (either real quotations or made-up sentences) to illustrate how words are used: this is also a feature of many pedagogic dictionaries, designed for schoolchildren or foreign language learners. And in some of the most popular learners’ dictionaries, reading the examples is like flicking through a catalogue of offensive gender stereotypes.
A student of mine who did a project on this topic found that one of the dictionaries she analysed had a pattern of alternating between male and female references in illustrative quotations: this may have been meant to ensure gender ‘balance’, but the effect was almost comically sexist, as though the examples had been chosen by Benny Hill. In its entry for the verb slip, for instance, the dictionary offered ‘he slipped on his shoes and went outside’ followed by ‘she slipped out of her dress’. Another classic, illustrating the verb mop, had ‘he took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow’ alongside ‘the charwoman had just mopped the linoleum that covered the stairs’. Though they compiled it in the 1990s, the makers of this dictionary apparently felt that what foreign learners needed was a good understanding of the gender roles that prevailed in Britain circa 1953 (also the class relations and the household technology—when did anyone last see a ‘charwoman’ wielding a mop?)
One feminist response to these shortcomings was to try to reform the dick-tionary from within (as with the nonsexist school dictionary discussed by Alma Graham), but there was also a flurry of explicitly oppositional feminist dictionary-making. Its products were varied in their form and political aims. Daly and Caputi’s Wickedary is part of a ‘utopian’ subgenre which also includes Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig’s earlier Lesbian Peoples: Material for A Dictionary (1979). Other feminists focused on recording and defining feminism’s own terminology (e.g. Joreen and Marleen Dixon’s Dictionary of Women’s Liberation (1970)), offering alternatives to sexist words (e.g. Rosalie Maggio’s The Nonsexist Wordfinder (1987)), or conversely listing and critically discussing them (e.g. Jane Mills’s Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society (1989), which explores the history of misogyny by looking at the evolution of terms like frigid, hysteria and slut).
There were also examples like Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary (1985), which offered a direct challenge to the dick-tionary’s authority and its claims to objectivity. Kramarae and Treichler made no such claims. In some entries they defined a word (e.g. ‘powerlessness’) by simply juxtaposing quotations in which it had appeared, all taken from the speech and writing of feminist women. In other cases they offered a gloss which was designed to make visible the biases rendered invisible by the standard, supposedly neutral definition:
CUCKOLD. The husband of an unfaithful wife. The wife of an unfaithful husband is just called wife.
The first part of this does not differ greatly from what you might find in a non-feminist dictionary entry for cuckold, but the second part pointedly draws attention to the absence of any parallel term for a woman whose husband is unfaithful, and so makes a (non-neutral) comment on the underlying sex inequality.
In 1992 A Feminist Dictionary was reissued under the new title Amazons, Bluestockings and Crones. Lindsay Rose Russell calls this ‘a move from suffragist to supplement’: it makes the book sound less like a challenge to the conventions and the authority of the mainstream product, and more like ‘a harmless helpmate to the lexicographical tradition, a dictionary of boutique terms (Amazon, bluestocking, crone)’. Later examples continue the ‘harmless helpmate’ theme, bearing titles like From the Goddess to the Glass Ceiling (1996) and Wimmin, Wimps and Wallflowers (2001). There are also collections of words coined by and for a specific community or subculture, like the Chicago-based online Dyketionary. These are not aiming to talk back to the dick-tionary, to criticize its sexism or question its objectivity. They are, as Russell says, supplementary lists of ‘boutique terms’.
It could be argued that the function of the second-wave feminist dictionary has been superseded by more recent developments. On one hand, new technology has enabled mainstream dictionaries to expand their coverage and widen the range of sources they trawl through, thus reducing some of the old biases (it’s also worth pointing out that many mainstream lexicographers today are women: they may or may not be feminists, but they aren’t bearded Victorian patriarchs who find women alien and faintly repulsive). On the other hand, new media have democratised the process of recording and defining words, bringing us completely crowd-sourced examples of amateur/popular lexicography like Urban Dictionary, or Dyketionary.
But I wouldn’t make that argument myself, or at least not unreservedly. The response to Oxford’s announcement about cisgender shows that the authority of the established, mainstream dictionary has not been superseded. It also shows that there are still gaps in the public understanding of what lexicographers do, and how they go about it. If one consequence is that feminists sometimes make specific criticisms of dictionaries that (in my view) are misplaced, another is that they don’t make more general criticisms that are still highly pertinent.
That was one of the functions of feminist dictionaries. They were much more than boutique wordlists. Outdated though much of their content is, they offer, as Lindsay Rose Russell says, ‘a usable past’ for feminists reimagining the dictionary today.