‘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.          

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.