‘Woman’: an update

Back in the summer of 2019, I wrote about a petition which called on Oxford University Press to change the Oxford dictionary entry for ‘woman’. It was started by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi after she googled the word ‘woman’ and was shocked by what her search returned—entries full of insulting synonyms (‘baggage’, ‘besom’, ‘bint’) and time-warped example sentences like ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’. Oxford wasn’t the only offender, but its market position and reputation made it a prime target for Giovanardi’s campaign. Her petition attracted media attention, and ultimately over 30,000 signatures. Oxford announced that it was undertaking a review. And earlier this month, the first results were unveiled.

Here’s what you get if you google ‘woman’ now:  

Woman /ˈwʊmən/ noun

noun: woman; plural noun: women

  1. an adult female human being. “a drawing of a young woman”

Similar: lady, adult female, female, girl, person, lass, lassie, wife, colleen, Frau, Signora, Señora, the female of the species, member of the fair sex, member of the fairer sex, bird, gal, Jane, sister, Sheila, femme, Judy, dame, broad, frail, maid, maiden, damsel, demoiselle, gentlewoman, bint, mare, [offensive] bitch

  • a female member of a workforce, team, etc. “thousands of women were laid off”
  • a female person associated with a particular place, activity, or occupation “she was the first Oxford woman to take a first in Physics”
  • a disrespectful form of address to a woman “don’t be daft, woman!”
  • DATED  a female person who is paid to clean someone’s house and carry out other domestic duties “a daily woman”
  • a person’s wife, girlfriend, or female lover. “he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him”

Similar: girlfriend, girl, partner, significant other,  wife, spouse, consort, fiancée, lover, mistress, sweetheart, inamorata, better half, other half, baby, Mrs, old lady, gf, missus, bird, her indoors, mot, dona, bibi, querida, lady friend, lady love, young lady, lady, lady wife, old dutch, squeeze, patootie, leman, doxy, paramour

  • a person with the qualities traditionally associated with females. “I feel more of a woman by empowering myself to do what is right for me”
  • a female individual; one “with that money, a woman could buy a house and put two kids through college”

First, a pedantic point: though many headlines said Oxford had ‘changed the definition of woman’, in fact the definition has not changed: it’s still ‘adult female human being’. What’s changed is some of the other stuff that appears in a dictionary entry. The list of synonyms no longer includes some of the archaic and little-used terms from the previous version (e.g. ‘besom’, ‘wench’); it does still contain some insulting items, on the grounds that they remain in common use, but notes have been added explaining that ‘bitch’, for example, is ‘offensive’. Some more specialised senses of ‘woman’ get similar warning labels. ‘Woman’ as a vocative (as in ‘don’t be daft, woman!’) is ‘disrespectful’, and ‘woman’ in the sense of ‘maid/cleaner’ is ‘dated’.

The old example sentences have been ditched; the new ones depict women in what Oxford calls an ‘active and positive’ way, getting first class degrees in physics, empowering themselves and putting their children through college. Even the less upbeat ‘thousands of women were laid off’ is an implicit reminder of women’s presence in the paid workforce. I’ll confess to finding this a bit heavy-handed, as though the entry-writer had decided to atone for the casual sexism of the past by choosing only examples with an Uplifting Feminist Message. But that’s a minor quibble: the new examples do a decent job of illustrating the usages they’ve been chosen to exemplify.    

For most media commentators, however, the most newsworthy aspect of the revision was not the culling of archaic synonyms or the use of examples showing women in a positive light. What really caught their attention was the shift to LGBT-inclusive language in ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover’. Pink News, unsurprisingly, led on this change—but so did many mainstream publications which are not exactly known for their cutting-edge sexual politics. The Daily Mail, for instance, ran a report headed ‘Oxford English Dictionary updates entry for “woman” so that it is now defined as a “person’s” wife, girlfriend or lover as opposed to a man’s after gender review’, and went on to note that the entry for ‘man’ has had a parallel makeover: it ‘now reads as “a person’s husband, boyfriend or male lover”’.   

These updates were undoubtedly needed. We’ve been referring to same-sex partners as ‘wives/husbands’ for several years now, and same-sex uses of ‘boyfriend/girlfriend/lover’ go back much further. But the issue being addressed by the substitution of ‘person’ for ‘man/woman’ is not sexism but heterosexism. The commentators who hailed it as a breakthrough seem not to have noticed that it’s an isolated and largely token gesture: the rest of this section, beginning with the example sentence ‘he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him’ and continuing with a list of synonyms which includes ‘her indoors’, ‘doxy’ and ‘patootie’, is still entirely patriarchal and heteronormative.

Some readers did notice this, and were evidently confused by it: their comments on the Mail story included ‘People in general are definitively much more than just the roles they fill in others’ lives’, and ‘So a woman is not an individual person but belong[s] to somebody else?’ This criticism does not reflect the overall emphasis of the entry, where ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover’ is only one of several senses listed. But it does reflect the emphasis the media gave to the LGBT inclusion angle, which led some readers to conclude that ‘wife, girlfriend or female lover’ was now the primary definition of ‘woman’, and to wonder–not unreasonably–why that was supposed to be progress.   

Though the petition focused specifically on the ‘woman’ entry, Oxford’s review did not stop there. Revisions have also been made to other entries which were thought to pose similar problems. Many news reports mentioned two of these: ‘housework’, where the example ‘she still does all the housework’ has been replaced by ‘I was busy doing housework when the doorbell rang’, and ‘high-maintenance’, where the sentence ‘if Martin could keep a high-maintenance girl like Tania happy, he must be doing something right’ has been replaced by ‘I freely admit to being high-maintenance’.   

These substitutions, while unobjectionable, show the limitations of an approach which tackles stereotyping by simply replacing sex-specific examples with gender-neutral/inclusive ones. When you read ‘I freely admit to being high-maintenance’, who do you imagine as the ‘I’? In many cases we would tend to imagine a gender-unspecified person as male by default, but in this case I’m betting that most readers will picture a woman. Part of what English-speakers know about the expression ‘high-maintenance’ is that when it’s used to describe a person, that person is likely to be female (I did a quick corpus search to check, and found that references to ‘high-maintenance’ women were over three times more frequent than similar references to men). If you want to block that association, you probably need to pick an explicitly male-referring example. A gender-neutral one avoids overt stereotyping, but it doesn’t prevent the covert stereotyping that results from readers interpreting ‘I’ in relation to their pre-existing cultural and linguistic knowledge.

But in any case there’s a question about whether a descriptive dictionary, one whose aim is to document, as OUP’s press statement put it, ‘how real people use English in their daily lives’, should be trying to block associations which are part of our knowledge about words. It’s one thing if the sexism is gratuitous—if a sexist example has been selected for no good reason (as appears to have been the case with Oxford’s use of ‘a rabid feminist’ to illustrate ‘rabid’, which was criticised on social media a few years ago); but if there’s evidence that ‘high-maintenance’ really is used more frequently about women, should that not be reflected in the entry for it? Should dictionaries be trying to present us with a less biased world than the one we currently inhabit—or is their real obligation to reflect the world as it is, and as it shapes our use of words?

For the makers of dictionaries this is a perennial, and genuinely difficult, question. They may say that their decisions are ‘driven solely by evidence about how real people use English in their daily lives’, but ‘solely’ is an overstatement: they also have to consider what real people want from, and find acceptable in, their products. Sensitivities change over time—in the past many controversies turned on matters of taste and decency, whereas today there is more concern about diversity and bias—but what doesn’t change is the existence of competing pressures, and the difficulty of finding a balance between them.  

Has Oxford found the right balance? Maria Beatrice Giovanardi told reporters that while she is mostly happy with the revisions, she’s disappointed by the retention of ‘bitch’, and will continue to press for its removal. I think she’s got a point: while I don’t believe offensive epithets should be airbrushed out of dictionaries, I do struggle with the logic of putting ‘bitch’ on a list of synonyms for ‘woman’.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s take a look at the list of synonyms in the ‘man’ entry:

male, gentleman, guy, fellow, gent, mother’s son, bloke, chap, geezer, lad, Joe, dude, bro, hombre, digger, oke, ou, oom, bodach, cove, carl.

Essentially this is a list of stylistic and/or regional variants meaning ‘man’, or in a couple of cases ‘old man’. The corresponding list in the ‘woman’ entry (see above) also includes informal and regional variants (e.g. ‘girl/gal’, ‘lassie’, ‘colleen’, ‘Sheila’), but in addition it features two sets of words which have no parallel on the ‘man’ list: archaic courtly terms (‘maiden’, ‘damsel/demoiselle’, ‘member of the fair(er) sex’) and belittling or dehumanising insults (‘bint’, ‘bird’, ‘bitch’, ‘mare’–though not ‘cunt’, which suggests that evidence-based decision-making does have limits).

This is what I meant when I used the word ‘logic’: it’s not just that the two lists contain different words (which you’d obviously expect), it’s that they seem to have been compiled on different principles. That can’t be because there are no comparable words for men. If you’re going to count ‘bitch’ and ‘mare’ as synonyms for ‘woman’, you could equally count ‘stallion’, ‘cock’ and ‘stag’ as synonyms for ‘man’. True, they’re not exact equivalents (the difference reflects our culture’s more negative attitude to female sexuality), but if it’s relevant to include words from this general category in the ‘woman’ entry, why not do the same for ‘man’? If the casually contemptuous ‘bint’ belongs on one list, why doesn’t the other include, say, ‘git’ or ‘bastard’? If ‘damsel’, why not ‘knight’?

I’m not seriously suggesting that these terms should be added to the ‘man’ entry. The serious question is why flowery euphemisms and insults are deemed essential for our understanding of ‘woman’, whereas ‘man’ requires no such elaboration. I’m inclined to see this asymmetry as a hangover from the long history of treating ‘woman’ as man’s ‘Other’, and representing her from men’s perspective. Just removing ‘bitch’ would not resolve this deeper problem–but I do think it needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

So, from me as from Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, it’s two cheers for Oxford’s revisions. Heartfelt cheers in my case, though, because I don’t think we should underestimate either the magnitude or the difficulty of the task they’ve taken on. It’s a lot easier to criticise a dictionary than it is to make one.