Politics, by definition

That troublesome word ‘woman’ has been causing controversy again.

Last week, a Twitter user who goes by @ShoelessJoe1910 shared two responses from the makers of Collins Dictionaries to people who’d contacted them about the dictionary entry for ‘woman’. One correspondent had received a reply that looked like a standard piece of boilerplate:

As lexicographers, our duty is to report the language as it is used… Whilst we do welcome all feedback received from our users, any changes we make to our definitions are the result of a detailed review process and evidence-based linguistic research.

Another correspondent who raised the same subject got a different response:

Thanks again for contacting us about the definition of ‘woman’. …We are currently reviewing all our gender-related vocabulary to make sure that we accurately reflect the evolution in the vocabulary of gender and sexuality. This review will be completed in the coming months, and your comments will most certainly be taken into account. We always welcome feedback from our users, so do not hesitate to contact us if you notice any other inaccuracies and omissions.

The subject of both communications was whether a dictionary entry for ‘woman’ should define the word as meaning ‘an adult female human being’ (as Collins currently does), or whether it should (also) inform users that ‘woman’ denotes a person who identifies as a woman. The first correspondent wanted the lexicographers to maintain the traditional definition; the second wanted them to change it.

What initially bothered @ShoelessJoe1910 was the contrast between Collins’s dismissive treatment of the first correspondent, a woman, and the deferential manner in which they addressed the second, presumed to be a man (it was later clarified that this correspondent was actually a trans woman). But what drew people into the thread was the question about how ‘woman’ should be defined. Most comments endorsed the traditional definition, and criticised the dictionary for considering any other. Some thought this was an Orwellian plot to cut the cord which tethers language to reality. One was sufficiently incensed to call for a boycott of HarperCollins’s products.

And what, I hear you ask, does this blog think? I think I’m about to piss off both sides in this argument by explaining why I believe it’s pointless to pursue your political objectives by lobbying lexicographers about dictionary definitions.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts about dictionaries, you’ll know that I don’t regard them as just objective and apolitical works of reference. They have historically exhibited all kinds of biases, including androcentrism and casual sexism, and there are some traces of that history which I think it’s reasonable to ask them to get rid of—especially their unreflective use of sex-stereotyped examples illustrating the current usage of words, which is neither necessary nor helpful to their users.

Other kinds of sexism are more difficult for dictionaries to eliminate while still fulfilling their core functions. For instance, if you read Collins’s current online entry for ‘woman’  you’ll see not only some thoroughly sexist example-sentences in the illustration section, but also some secondary senses of ‘woman’ (e.g. ‘domestic servant’; ‘wife, mistress or girlfriend’) and some idioms containing the word (e.g. ‘little woman’, ‘woman of the streets’) which feminists might well find objectionable. But their inclusion is not a mark of the lexicographers’ own sexism, it’s a reflection of the sexism of the community whose usage they’re describing. We might query the range of idioms selected—they’re a pretty dated-looking set—but even if some of them are no longer in common use, they still appear in sources (like Victorian novels) which 21st century language-users encounter fairly frequently. Dictionaries have quite exacting criteria for declaring a usage obsolete, and one consequence is that they are rich sources of evidence about the prejudices of the past.

But whatever you think about the retention of old usages which offend modern sensibilities, one thing it’s not reasonable to ask lexicographers to do is ignore the development of new usages which express more contemporary attitudes. I’ve given this example before, but it bears repeating: what would we think of an entry for ‘marriage’ that defined it, in 2017, as ‘the union of a man and woman’ or ‘the relationship between a husband and a wife’? That’s what it used to mean, and it’s also what quite a lot of people think it should still mean. But theirs is no longer the majority view: in many parts of the English-speaking world the law has changed to permit same-sex marriage, and the usage of ‘marriage’ reflects that. Dictionaries have therefore felt the need to update their entries for the word. Collins’s, for instance, though it makes no explicit reference to same-sex marriage, is written in pointedly gender-neutral language.

Similarly, the gender-identity-based definition of ‘woman’ now reflects the usage of at least some people in at least some contexts. Whether that usage merits recording in a general-purpose dictionary will depend on the criteria the dictionary uses to decide if something has entered ‘general’ or ‘common’ usage: I assume that’s what the Collins lexicographers will be looking at in their review of gender-related vocabulary. I also assume that if they do decide to record the identity-based sense of ‘woman’, what they’ll do is add this definition to their revised entry, not substitute it for the current one. I’m confident the evidence is not going to show that English-speakers have stopped using ‘woman’ to mean ‘adult female human being’.

In my view, what Collins told the first correspondent was right: ‘thanks for your input, this is a question that’s on our radar, but our decision will be based on analysing a large sample of relevant linguistic data, not on random emails from a few individuals who feel strongly enough to lobby us about it’. That’s also what they should have told the second correspondent. If your policy is to base definitions on corpus evidence about word-usage (and if it isn’t you’re basically just Urban Dictionary) then you should spell that out to everyone who contacts you—ideally without implying that you regard them as either out-of-touch, prescriptive bigots or oracles of wisdom. (Of course, that means that when you say ‘we welcome all feedback from our users’ you’ll be lying about 99% of the time, but such is life for lexicographers. Some of the feedback they get makes the comments in the Daily Mail look sensible.)

If I were in charge of all things linguistic, what I’d want to change with a wave of my magic wand would not be the principles of descriptive lexicography (even if some of its practices could be improved), but the popular attitude which makes dictionaries perennial targets for political lobbying. By treating lexicographers as linguistic quality controllers—if a word or sense makes it into the dictionary that’s taken as a stamp of approval, a vote of confidence, a Papal Bull proclaiming that we should all be using/understanding the word that way—we give them and their products more authority than they deserve.

The view that dictionaries are or should be arbiters rather than just recorders of usage has a long history (interestingly discussed in Anne Curzan’s book Fixing English), and you can still see it reflected in things like Merriam-Webster’s periodic reports on its most popular online ‘look-ups’. The words M-W’s users look up tend to reflect what’s currently in the news: this summer, for instance, the solar eclipse prompted a spike in look-ups for eclipse-related terms like ‘penumbra’, while the ongoing drama of the Trump presidency had people searching out words like ‘impanel’ and ‘recuse’. In these cases, involving technical terms drawn from the registers of science and law, we can imagine people who were previously unfamiliar with a word going to the dictionary’s website to find out what it meant, or maybe how it was pronounced or spelled. But in other cases that’s an unlikely scenario. It’s hardly plausible that all the people who looked up ‘science’ during the row about Trump’s policy on climate change, or those who looked up ‘fact’ after Kellyanne Conway’s infamous reference to ‘alternative facts’, were just trying to remedy their ignorance about the meaning, spelling or pronunciation of these common words. More likely they were engaged in some kind of argument about what ‘science’ did or didn’t cover, or whether ‘alternative facts’ was a contradiction in terms, and had turned to the dictionary for an authoritative ruling.

I’m sure we’ve all at some point been involved in a political argument which someone has proposed to settle by looking a word up in a dictionary. But this will never definitively settle it, because the meanings of words (or at least, the sorts of words that provoke arguments) are always variable and contested; and anyway what you’re arguing about isn’t ultimately the words themselves, it’s the differing ideologies which lie behind the competing senses. Lobbying lexicographers on behalf of your preferred definition is fighting a political battle by proxy. What you need to do to win the battle is change the real-world usage of the word in question (something that will usually go along with  other, nonlinguistic social changes). If the dictionary definition is the only thing that shifts, your victory will be purely symbolic.

You might be thinking: but if people with a political agenda manage to change the definition given in dictionaries, won’t that in itself have an impact on real-world usage? In some cases the answer may be ‘yes’, but only if we’re talking about the sort of obscure word which is typically acquired through instruction rather than through the experience of hearing words used in context. ‘Woman’ is not that kind of word. It’s a basic item of English vocabulary, one of the thousand most common words listed in Collins’s dictionary.

If every dictionary in the world changed its definition of ‘woman’ tomorrow, that still wouldn’t stop future generations from understanding and using it to mean ‘adult female human’. That meaning, still the dominant one, will survive because it will continue to be acquired by children in the course of their everyday interactions. Whether they will also acquire the identity-based meaning is another question, and the answer to it doesn’t depend on the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ either: they’re more likely to be taught it in school, or to encounter it in the media, than to learn it by looking up ‘woman’ in a dictionary.  And if kids are learning the new sense from other sources, keeping it out of the dictionary will do nothing to halt its spread.

I’m not suggesting that all arguments about word-meaning are pointless (if I thought that I’d be in the wrong line of work); what I’m questioning is the equation of a word’s meaning with its dictionary definition, and the associated belief that if you can persuade a dictionary to change (or not change) a definition, you have thereby changed (or safeguarded) the language itself. This attitude to dictionaries is another interesting example of how conservative, when it comes to language, political radicals can be. It’s no good petitioning the King (especially as he abdicated long ago). The struggle for meaning is a grassroots campaign.

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Dictionaries, dick-tionaries and dyketionaries

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. girls dictionarySo 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.