#IAmNotABitch #SexistDictionary
September 17, 2019 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Have You Ever Googled ‘Woman’? Nearly 30,000 people have signed a petition to change Oxford Dictionary’s sexist definition of "woman" and cut entries that "discriminate against and patronise women". The dictionary staff are taking the points raised in the petition "very seriously" and OUP is now investigating a possible update to its definition of "woman".

It all started with an innocent google search for a project… that’s how the author of the petition, Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, noticed that the main online dictionaries included under the term woman synonyms like hussy, bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly and examples like don't be daft, woman! and male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut, while the entries for ‘man’ are almost universally positive, with the worst synonyms being geezer or dude, and examples like I’m as ambitious as the next man or A battle for power between a union man and an intellectual is looming.

What the campaign is trying to achieve is not remove the derogatory terms from the dictionary altogether, of course, but remove them as synonyms under "woman", enlarge the dictionary definition with more (and less sexist) examples – currently the word "man" has 25 examples while "woman" has only 5 – and "include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.".

The petition is aimed at the OUP as the publishers of the Oxford Dictionaries, which are the source used by Apple and Google.
posted by bitteschoen (69 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, those synonyms are kind of shocking.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:56 AM on September 17, 2019 [8 favorites]


Alternatively, we could add synonyms and examples to man that are just as mean-spirited. How is "doucher" not included? "The doucher listened to the Joe Rogan Podcast and felt it socially acceptable to bring up front of real human company."
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:05 AM on September 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


They are shocking! even if "bitch" is marked as offensive and "piece, bit, mare, baggage" are marked as derogatory, really, do they need to be listed as synonyms for "woman"? Let them have their own entry in the dictionary, so if people stumble upon old-fashioned derogatory or offensive words they can still look them up and know the history, but to have them as synonyms is indeed a bit shocking. It implies that’s an accepted usage. And it’s true that there are NO derogatory or offensive synonyms under "man".
posted by bitteschoen at 10:07 AM on September 17, 2019 [19 favorites]


Given the etymology of the word "woman", if you're going to go after the dictionary, then you really just need to come up with another word to replace "woman" in the English language. Otherwise you're not actually addressing this at all.
posted by parliboy at 10:07 AM on September 17, 2019


Goblinhoney, why would it be a good idea to add more negativity instead of treating everyone with equal decency and respect?
posted by Drumhellz at 10:07 AM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


Where serious reference dictionary editors do have power, she says, is in the choice of example sentences. “[The entry for ‘woman’] was revised in 2011, and I did think that some of the choices they made of illustrative examples from recent years were a bit odd,” she says. The example the OED has for the broad definition of woman, taken from a 2009 New Yorker article, is: “A solitary middle-aged woman … was watering her lawn in hip-hugging Capri jeans.”

Here's the 19th and 20th century examples from the OED, the "definitive record of the English language":
819 Ld. Byron Don Juan: Canto I lxi. 33 Her stature tall—I hate a dumpy woman.
1845 Stat. Acc. XIII. 75 For mossing, men receive 1s. 6d., and women, 9d. per day, without victuals.
1888 Mrs. H. Ward Robert Elsmere III. vi. xlvi. 310 He was unmarried, and a misogynist to boot. No woman willingly went near him.
1927 Lady Astor in Daily Tel. 15 Nov. 9/3 Although we have got the vote we women have a long way to go before we get a positive square deal.
1979 J. E. Hitt Tennessee Smith 134 The woman gave him a slow, sensual smile that seemed deliberately provocative.
2009 New Yorker 9 Feb. 81/1 A solitary middle-aged woman..was watering her lawn in hip-hugging Capri jeans.
posted by vacapinta at 10:10 AM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


Otherwise you're not actually addressing this at all.

Oh come on, don’t be daft, man! ;-) No, seriously, the issue here is with the listing of synonyms, not the etymology itself of a word or the history behind it - no one is suggesting rewriting words out of the dictionary altogether.
posted by bitteschoen at 10:10 AM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


"Goblinhoney, why would it be a good idea to add more negativity instead of treating everyone with equal decency and respect?"

I apologize if that came off as a suggestion for positive change, I meant it in cathartic jest. Certainly, we can make the world more fair by making it shittier for everyone but that is definitely not Good.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:13 AM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


My main problem with GoblinHoney's suggestion is I struggle to find male terms with the same expressive force as the ones used for women.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 10:15 AM on September 17, 2019 [7 favorites]


Alternatively, we could add synonyms and examples to man that are just as mean-spirited. How is "doucher" not included?

"Douche" and related slurs are inherently misogynist. More relevant synonyms for "man" would include "oppressor," "patriarchist" and "rapist."
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:16 AM on September 17, 2019 [30 favorites]


Given the etymology of the word "woman", if you're going to go after the dictionary, then you really just need to come up with another word to replace "woman" in the English language. Otherwise you're not actually addressing this at all.

I understand what you mean re: etymology, but there's plenty of room for not suggesting that 'bitch' and 'whore' are literally synonyms for 'woman' before you get to 'lets replace the word'. Though there are plenty of womyn out there that would be happy with a full replacement.

Dictionaries have already long-since changed the definition of woman so that the core definition doesn't directly refer to men. That doesn't change the etymology but it does represent more modern thinking. Some of the other elements in those entries haven't made that leap and really should.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:24 AM on September 17, 2019 [15 favorites]


"Douche" and related slurs are inherently misogynist.

I disagree. Douching is a medically harmful and shaming practice forced upon women by the patriarchy. Is is a perfect synonym for terrible men.
posted by emjaybee at 10:30 AM on September 17, 2019 [13 favorites]


Given the etymology of the word "woman", if you're going to go after the dictionary, then you really just need to come up with another word to replace "woman" in the English language. Otherwise you're not actually addressing this at all.

I would like to ask cis people to work fixing their gender problems in manner that allows the rest of us who aren't cis to be able to live our lives without the fear of getting eliminated along the way because cis folks fail to understand that they don't own and control the entirety of gender.

signed, a woman
posted by nikaspark at 10:49 AM on September 17, 2019 [21 favorites]


Douching is a medically harmful and shaming practice forced upon women by the patriarchy.

This is a periodic reminder that douching is medically advisable our necessary for some women, notably trans women. We lose nothing by not using it as a pejorative - even if misunderstood, its use in that manner is based in misogyny and its association with vaginas.
posted by Dysk at 10:56 AM on September 17, 2019 [26 favorites]


seconding Dysk's comment.
posted by nikaspark at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Given the etymology of the word "woman", if you're going to go after the dictionary, then you really just need to come up with another word to replace "woman" in the English language. Otherwise you're not actually addressing this at all.

Do you have a widely accepted citation on that? Not an attempt at a gotcha, I’ve been trying to figure out the most widely held view of exactly this etymology off and on for a while now, so far only with search engines, and finding what seems like a trustworthy source has been harder than I expected.

So far I’ve most frequently seen the assertion that wyf meant woman (or female human if you want to get more clinical (and as a further aside “human” and “man” have completely different etymologies from different languages (Latin and Old English respectively IIRC) and the similarity is a result of convergence of linguistic drift)). These assertions don’t really provide more detail, mostly coming from dictionaries, and I’m unclear how we get to the modern word woman from there.

The second most frequent is the assertion that “man” meant “human being of either gender” (definitely seems to be true) and that the genders were referred to as “wereman” and “wyfman” for “male human” and “female human” (I haven’t found good support for this), which you can see left over in werewolf (man wolf) or fish wife, though fish wife makes as much sense if it’s just wyf for woman. In this argument linguistic drift dropped “were” entirely leaving “man” as general purpose for both humans of both genders and the male gender for a long time, and the “wyf” part of “wyfman” somehow shifted into “wo”.

Finally, I once saw an unsupported comment on another article asserting that “wyf” in Old English was the word for a woman’s genitals, which IIRC went on to assert that calling someone your wife was linguistically equivalent to to calling her your cunt and that we need as a society to replace both the words “woman” and “wife” entirely. I don’t recall anyone having responded to this comment at the time I read it.

So if anyone knows of a fairly definitive source that’s not the OED, that’d be nice to know personally and also useful for the purposes of fictional world building. A book reference or something would be fine.
posted by Caduceus at 11:11 AM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


Also see "wag wife", a northern English term for a female truancy officer, irrespective of marital status.
posted by quacks like a duck at 11:21 AM on September 17, 2019


819 Ld. Byron Don Juan: Canto I lxi. 33 Her stature tall—I hate a dumpy woman.
1845 Stat. Acc. XIII. 75 For mossing, men receive 1s. 6d., and women, 9d. per day, without victuals.
1888 Mrs. H. Ward Robert Elsmere III. vi. xlvi. 310 He was unmarried, and a misogynist to boot. No woman willingly went near him.
1927 Lady Astor in Daily Tel. 15 Nov. 9/3 Although we have got the vote we women have a long way to go before we get a positive square deal.
1979 J. E. Hitt Tennessee Smith 134 The woman gave him a slow, sensual smile that seemed deliberately provocative.
2009 New Yorker 9 Feb. 81/1 A solitary middle-aged woman..was watering her lawn in hip-hugging Capri jeans.


The OED examples above are interesting because of the weird progression:

* 819 - Woman as sex object judged on looks.
* 1845 - pretty neutral but highlights unequal pay.
* 1888 - woman in relation to a man, but on a positive note the man is cast in a bad light for being anti-woman.
* 1927 - yay (white) women! Progress!
* 1979 - Woman as sex object.
* 2009 - Woman as sex object, with some implied judgement of women who get older and still try to dress young.

The synonyms are just silly. I'm not sure they even belong as "related words" since they are almost all insults. People who don't know what a hussy is can get that from the definition of that word. There's no scenario where you'd be looking for a synonym for woman for a paper or poem and think "ah, 'hussy'! That's what I meant to say!"
posted by freecellwizard at 11:56 AM on September 17, 2019 [10 favorites]


2020 OED: After years of unpaid emotional labor at home and lower pay and harassment at work, the woman finally snapped and murdered several patriarchal oppressors.

/fake
posted by freecellwizard at 11:59 AM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


Besom. Huh. They went all the way to Scots to find another insulting (non) synonym?
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:59 AM on September 17, 2019


Do you have a widely accepted citation on that? Not an attempt at a gotcha, I’ve been trying to figure out the most widely held view of exactly this etymology off and on for a while now, so far only with search engines, and finding what seems like a trustworthy source has been harder than I expected

The etymology of the word bad may help provide some insight into your question.
posted by nikaspark at 12:29 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


I would like to ask cis people to work fixing their gender problems in manner that allows the rest of us who aren't cis to be able to live our lives without the fear of getting eliminated along the way because cis folks fail to understand that they don't own and control the entirety of gender.

That's perfectly fine. If you believe that no words should be removed, then I respect that position as well.

On the other hand, if you believe that certain words should be removed because they're offensive to you, but others should not because they're offensive to others but not you, then there's an inconsistency in your position.
posted by parliboy at 12:38 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yeah! It reminded me that I should have specifically searched LanguageHat’s blog and then MeMailed him if necessary ages ago.

Also made me sad.
posted by Caduceus at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2019


How would people know that those other words are used to define a woman if they are not there in the dictionary?
posted by Burn_IT at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


I just want cis people to fix their gender system, parliboy. That doesn't require an abolitionist stance on entire classes of gender types. Not all women are cis, but that said, if cis people decide that the cis binary needs to be destroyed that's cool with me, just recognize that a more inclusive and less rigid trans binary will persist on regardless of what cis people feel say or think about it.

To break it down into an ask, I think cis people can do these things starting today that will help everyone immediately:

1. Stop assigning gender at birth
2. Stop assuming gender can be read and guessed at a distance
3. Stop reinforcing the notion that the cis binary model for sex and gender is the desired default biological state that all bodies are measured against.
4. Stop assigning feminine as "marked" and masculine as "unmarked". (please google "markedness" for more information on this concept)

Trans and nonbinary people are already doing this work, cis people need to do it as well.
posted by nikaspark at 12:54 PM on September 17, 2019 [29 favorites]


On the other hand, if you believe that certain words should be removed because they're offensive to you, but others should not because they're offensive to others but not you, then there's an inconsistency in your position.

Please don't treat the way hurtful language is used to identify and describe large numbers of people as if it is purely a logical exercise and that if no one can offer up the exact right solution that lands on perfect linguistic purity, nothing can be done. Please especially don't do that when a member of a marginalized group is asking to have their needs recognized in a discussion that has often historically excluded them.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:55 PM on September 17, 2019 [23 favorites]


4. Stop assigning feminine as "marked" and masculine as "unmarked". (please google "markedness" for more information on this concept)

This is kinda my point, ninaspark. Aren't "man" unmarked and "woman" marked by most versions of the etymology, thus rendering the words themselves problematic?

Please don't treat the way hurtful language is used to identify and describe large numbers of people as if it is purely a logical exercise and that if no one can offer up the exact right solution that lands on perfect linguistic purity, nothing can be done.

See above response, jacquilynne. I'm not intent on treating this as a logical exercise. I'm simply proposing that if we're serious about the meanings of words, then let's be serious about the meanings of words. Even words that we're comfortable with using despite their origins.
posted by parliboy at 1:22 PM on September 17, 2019


This is kinda my point, ninaspark. Aren't "man" unmarked and "woman" marked by most versions of the etymology, thus rendering the words themselves problematic?

For cis people yeah. That's not my lane though, so I'm not really sure how cis people solve that for themselves. Maybe cis people could just undo their concept of gender altogether, but that means little to trans and nonbinary people cause we only appear in the cis gender system, we don't belong to it.
posted by nikaspark at 1:28 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


I love how every single fucking discussion we ever have around using words and their meanings comes back to etymology, as if a canned history of how a word was used two centuries ago is a useful guide to how we should use language and how we should choose our words today.

And by love it, I mean "hate it. A lot." I like etymology as much as the next logophile, but I don't think it is germane to nearly as many discussions on language choice and words as it generally appears in. Etymology is a history, not a prescription for all eternity for what a word should or does mean today.
posted by sciatrix at 1:40 PM on September 17, 2019 [32 favorites]


It's at the point where I think etymology ought to be enshrined as the most predictable derail on the entire Internet. I used to love trailing down where words came from, and now I see the pontification of "well, if you consider the etymology of the word we are discussing--GOTCHA" coming a mile a fucking way and it is making me hate the entire discipline.

Fuck etymology. How is the word used now? What are its connotations? How does its use change among cultures and subcultures, dialects and audiences, specialized and general audiences? What is the word striving to communicate today? When we consider synonyms, what do we define as synonymous? What does the word mean in the English of the motherfucking now?
posted by sciatrix at 1:45 PM on September 17, 2019 [27 favorites]


How would people know that those other words are used to define a woman if they are not there in the dictionary?

First off, "bitch" does not mean woman, and woman does not mean bitch. Bitch may refer to a woman, but it doesn't mean the same thing.

And if anyone is confused as to what bitch means, they'll be looking up bitch in the dictionary. Not woman. So there is no utility lost in not listing it as a synonym in the entry for woman.
posted by Dysk at 1:47 PM on September 17, 2019 [16 favorites]


What does the word mean in the English of the motherfucking now?

I would very much like to subscribe to this newsletter.
posted by nikaspark at 1:47 PM on September 17, 2019 [8 favorites]


Fuck etymology. How is the word used now?

I'm confused. There are quite a few words we no longer use based on their history and origin, and the hateful and hurtful nature thereof.

And before the mods get annoyed at me, no, I'm not trolling. But I'm getting some inconsistent messaging about when the origin of a word matters and when it doesn't, based on its convenience for the argument being made. I'm good with whatever the rules are. I just want one set of rules.
posted by parliboy at 1:58 PM on September 17, 2019


I just want one set of rules.

But you're still definitely not treating this as just an exercise in logic, right?
posted by jacquilynne at 1:59 PM on September 17, 2019 [16 favorites]


Congratulations and welcome to Social Interaction 101. I'll be your friendly neighborhood autistic this afternoon.

Here's lesson 1: People disagree sometimes on the importance of various aspects of language and communication. In fact, people disagree on effectively all social interactions at varying points according to various contextual cues and mitigating factors.

There are no single sets of rules for all people for any form of social interaction! Women are not interchangeable! In fact, no group of people or social situation is interchangeable!

I get the desire for a comfortable set of unchanging rules, but people don't work that way.
posted by sciatrix at 2:02 PM on September 17, 2019 [18 favorites]


[This has gotten off onto a hypothetical side point about abolishing the term "woman", and thereby driven away from the actual really-happening situation the links are about. Maybe let's steer back.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:08 PM on September 17, 2019 [7 favorites]


I get the desire for a comfortable set of unchanging rules, but people don't work that way.

I'm not suggesting that rules are unchanging, sciatrix. Rules change as society changes. But there shouldn't be multiple sets of rules in play at the same time.

Perhaps this is where equality vs equity comes in.
posted by parliboy at 2:09 PM on September 17, 2019


I don't feel like it's my job to tell cis people what the rules are for discussing how cis-specific gendered synonyms and words are kept, altered or destroyed, that is all solely within y'alls lane.

What I absolutely do care about is cis people projecting their gendered trauma and baggage on to trans and nonbinary folks, because the net result of that is that Black trans women are getting killed for cis people's inability to manage and evolve their gender system.

Just recognize that women are still gonna exist whatever happens in the "post cis" era.
posted by nikaspark at 2:11 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


I'm confused. There are quite a few words we no longer use based on their history and origin, and the hateful and hurtful nature thereof.

Generally they are words that are not used in a neutral manner, or have a history (or present) of derogatory usage. 'Woman' does not fit that description.

And even then, there is no consistency. 'Gay' has a history of pejorative use, but the gay community have embraced and reclaimed the word. Similar with 'queer', though you'll find more people who object to its use because they have experience of it being used as a slur, or conceive of it as a slur. Which is fair enough! I tend to call myself queer, but I wouldn't do so in the company of someone who objected on those grounds, and wouldn't label them that way.

There is no consistency, there are no rules, only conventions. And those conventions may vary between groups, contexts, situations, anything. Some conventions - most of our basic language and grammar - are fairly broadly agreed upon. But not everything is, and it never will be. Language evolves, and it does so in (linguistic) communities, independently. So conventions will differ between communities, and within communities across time.

Natural languages are a whole different animal to tightly codified, constructed languages.
posted by Dysk at 2:13 PM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


In related news, the British Scrabble Association decided just a few hours ago to amend its dictionary by labeling the verb "jew" (i.e., "he jewed her asking price down") as offensive. According to Smithsonian Magazine, a similar reaction in the USA ultimately led to this compromise:
The third edition of the Scrabble Dictionary—the OSPD3 in player lingo—does not contain the words, but a separate word list of the removed words is printed for tournament play.
Yes. The ability to use offensive slurs is so important that they have a special list of them to make sure they don't leave any out.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:48 PM on September 17, 2019 [7 favorites]


Fuck etymology. How is the word used now?

I'm confused. There are quite a few words we no longer use based on their history and origin, and the hateful and hurtful nature thereof.


Part of knowing how words are used now is knowing that history and origin are way more salient for some words than others.
posted by straight at 3:11 PM on September 17, 2019


Usually when someone objects to a word based on history, it's because there is some living connection between that history and present usage -- they know someone who was targeted by usage intended to harm, or they know of people who--with an awareness of history--currently use it in a way intended to harm.
posted by straight at 3:22 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


Apparently the author of the article does not know the difference between a dictionary and a thesaurus and does not know how a thesaurus works. It is intended to suggest related words and terms, not just "provide synonyms", and it is intended to reflect how the language is used by the people who speak it. Criticize offensive thoughts and attitudes all you want, but you cannot justifiably malign a reference work that tracks and reports the words that people used in the past and use today.
posted by megatherium at 3:32 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Can someone clarify if we are talking about the OED here or a different Oxford product? To my mind this makes a huge difference -- OED is explicitly a historical dictionary, concerned with both a word's etymology and what it means in the English of the motherfucking now, even if it's doomed to fall behind the times regarding the latter about 10 minutes after it goes to press (or more realistically 20 years before). If we are talking about the OED, then barring historical inaccuracy the answer is to add rather than subtract.

But it's hard to believe the OED's full entry for woman only has five citations. If those five citations are what has been selected for an abridged version, then that abridgment is dumb and wrong. (And if Google thinks a historical dictionary gives the best answer to basic "what does this word mean" queries, then Google is dumb and wrong.)
posted by aws17576 at 3:43 PM on September 17, 2019


Language evolves, we all should be participants in the conversation of what words mean and advocate for changing our usage and understandings of words, reclamation is a process as well. I am an accomplice and co-conspirator in the quest to fight misogyny and patriarchy in all forms, but one of the things that I am passionately asking for is that we provide safe passage for binary trans people while we do the work of critiquing our records of language and agitating against the cis binary in our quest for a world free of the patriarchy.

I would love to figure out what the hell caveats to put into our systems of language record to help enumerate how shitty the past was towards ALL WOMEN because our history is an ugly and damaging fact. I don't advocate for erasing the historical record, but that said I sure as hell don't want to implicitly hold it up and give it any value whatsoever. Also, let's discuss reclaiming any of these words if that's a conversation worth having. All I'm asking is for cis people to not assume that all gendered words are all about them first and trans and nonbinary people second. Hell my gender is the root of the word bad let me tell you how deeply I feel the damage that words can cause a person.

As it stands now there is a rigid cis binary that absolutely by design excludes all trans and a hell of a lot of nonbinary folks from these conversations of what words mean and how they can be used. Cis people actively exclude us, mostly because they can't imagine a world where they don't own the entirety of the gender systems and the all the rules that make up a gender system.

The rules of the cis binary gender system are: assigned gender at birth, guessing gender at a distance, the sex binary as biological fact, gender and sex are immutable, that immutability is determined by assessing your sex parts and birth, if you deviate from any one of these rules your body is invalid and your gender cannot be trusted and everything you experience is now questionable.

I guess what I'm trying to get across is this: if you are cis, can you challenge the rules of the cis binary and work to change the implicit bias inside yourself that centers you as the first and foremost owners of what a good and valid gender system is? Can you open up space in your mind for other gender systems with different rules and cultures and languages to have a seat at the table of this language discussion with you? If you can do those things then you are doing the work to challenge the most insidious and misogynistic foundations of the cis binary that is currently upholding a whole hell of a lot of the patriarchy that created this shitty historical record of language that we're now stuck with having to account for and figure out how to deal with.
posted by nikaspark at 4:08 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


Can someone clarify if we are talking about the OED here or a different Oxford product?
The Google results come from Oxford Dictionaries' online Lexico Dictionary and Lexico Thesaurus. The entry in the full online OED is much, much longer, with literally hundreds of citations.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:19 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


If we are talking about the OED, then barring historical inaccuracy the answer is to add rather than subtract.

How is it being historical a reason for "hussy" to be listed as a synonym under 'woman'?
posted by Dysk at 5:44 PM on September 17, 2019 [10 favorites]


OED (which I agree I don't think is the dictionary we're talking about in any case) accretes usage in all its warts; if a term was used historically as a synonym, it'll be cited there as a synonym. Even if it being used as a synonym is part of a historical record of misogynistic language. But the OED's focus on historical documentation is very different from role more traditional dictionaries play as contemporary usage guides and there's no such fundamental reason for a concise guide to contemporary usage to keep shitty old stuff around just because the words had ever been used that way in the past.
posted by cortex at 7:39 PM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure that I'm buying that they were ever truly synonyms. I think part of the misogyny on the part of the dictionary compilers is to consider them as such, when one set is pejorative and the other neutral. I get grandfathering in old language, even if it's misogynist. But grandfathering in old misogynist dictionary compiling decisions?
posted by Dysk at 7:47 PM on September 17, 2019 [12 favorites]


For sure. And that's part of the thing, right: there's the question of documenting sexist and misogynistic language, and the question of sexism and misogyny existing as forces biasing that documentation process. I don't think the OED even in its focus on historicity should be considered immune from the need to review with clear hindsight past compilation decisions as far as that goes (and in fact I'd be genuinely interested to learn more about how they tackle that balance in practice).

Looking through it, the OED doesn't contain "hussy" anywhere in the 25K+ words in the entry on "woman", though it does document some sexist phrases (and e.g. notes them as generally considered offensive); "bitch" only shows up in a contemporary cite from a movie review in Time Out in what looks like a reclamatory sense ("bitchery on wheels" re: a revenge film, under the cites for the compound phrase "woman scorned"). Both words have their own dedicated entries; the entry on "hussy" does note ooold use of non-derogatory senses along the lines of "housewife" or "country woman", mixed in with explicitly pejorative meanings.

But the OED is also citing those from 16th-19th C. and explicitly notes them as former uses, not current ones. Whatever process is compiling "hussy" as a contemporary synonym for "woman" today without providing that level of context isn't doing the work. Tossing "bitch" into a shortlist of synonyms on a google search is like an order of magnitude even more so given the immediacy and reach of that kind of placement.

I think in terms of dictionary nerdery it's worth underscoring the very distinctly different roles and purposes of the not-very-distinctly named "Oxford English Dictionary" vs. "Oxford Dictionaries" since the former has both a ton of cultural weight attached to it and isn't functioning in the same role as a typical contemporary usage dictionary, but beyond that I don't mean to dig into it further because that potential confusion aside it doesn't seem really central to what Giovanardi was noting in the first place.
posted by cortex at 8:31 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


IIUC "hussy" is an abbreviation of "housewife" in much the the now-archaic "goody" is an abbreviation of "goodwife". It was once used as a title or form of address, just as "Mrs" is today. It became pejorative because of misogynistic culture, but the original meaning is both obscure and entirely irrelevant to someone seeking a synonym for "woman".
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:37 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


the original meaning is both obscure and entirely irrelevant to someone seeking a synonym for "woman".

Yeah, housewife or Mrs don't mean woman.
posted by Dysk at 10:20 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


The etymological fallacy.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:48 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


Apparently the author of the article does not know the difference between a dictionary and a thesaurus and does not know how a thesaurus works. It is intended to suggest related words and terms, not just "provide synonyms", and it is intended to reflect how the language is used by the people who speak it. Criticize offensive thoughts and attitudes all you want, but you cannot justifiably malign a reference work that tracks and reports the words that people used in the past and use today.

And yet when you look up the word "man" in a thesaurus, the lexicographers don't seem to feel the need to list every derogatory term that's ever used to refer to a man. "Rapist" and "cuckold" are not on the first page of related words for "man."

If someone is specifically looking up derogatory words for women, you could argue that a reference work should list similar terms together, but I don't think there's any sort of academic mandate to document every nasty thing someone has ever said about women as part of a thesaurus or dictionary entry about the word "woman".
posted by straight at 11:28 PM on September 17, 2019 [7 favorites]


If we are talking about the OED, then barring historical inaccuracy the answer is to add rather than subtract.

How is it being historical a reason for "hussy" to be listed as a synonym under 'woman'?


Its not, 'hussy' doesn't appear in the OED entry. 'bitch' only appears in the term 'bitchery' under 'Woman scorned'. The list at the top of the FPP brings together terms from various definitions. I'd offer to memail the full OED definition but its a long one.
posted by biffa at 2:56 AM on September 18, 2019


bitch' only appears in the term 'bitchery' under 'Woman scorned'.

"Bitch" is listed as a synonym in the definition you get if you type "define woman" into Google. That definition is provided by Oxford Dictionaries of the OUP, who also make the OED. I'd be surprised to find that their Lexico offering isn't entirely included in the OED definition (assuming you're looking at the unabridged work). Regardless, "bitch" absolutely is listed as a synonym for woman if you search a definition on Google.
posted by Dysk at 3:56 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Here is the Lexico (of Oxford Dictionaries of the OUP) entry for woman. While "bitch" is listed as a synonym (offensive), the worse one to my mind is 'wench' which is apparently archaic and humorous. Not offensive. Not derogatory. Funny.
posted by Dysk at 4:01 AM on September 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


One other thing to keep in mind is these online resources (or as in the case of Apple, the built-in dictionary which is indeed the Oxford Dictionary of English) are used extensively also by non-native speakers of English. And of course non-native speakers are taught to distinguish between informal and derogatory and offensive, just as they would in their own language, but someone who’s never heard, say, "bint" or "bird" used as "informal" terms might end up thinking they’re more common than they actually are, maybe?

Funnily enough Apple’s built-in Oxford Thesaurus of English has a note at the bottom of the entry for "woman" (the same one that contains "bitch" and filly, biddy, bird, bint, piece, bit, mare, baggage and wench) that says: "CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORD":

woman, girl, lady
■ Woman is the most commonly neutral word for an adult female person, but can be insulting when used to address a woman directly (don't be daft, woman!) or when referring to a man's girlfriend or wife (he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him).
■ Girl is considered by some women to be patronizing when used by a man to describe a grown woman, especially in a role that could equally be taken by a man (the girl in the ticket office). On the other hand, it can be used acceptably by other women, in certain phrases (a girls' night out), or of a man's girlfriend (you're my girl now, aren't you?).
■ Lady used to be the standard polite word but is now slightly formal or dated, as in the lady at the travel agency or when used of a man's wife (the Colonel and his lady). It can be complimentary, meaning a courteous, decorous, or genteel woman (his wife was a real lady, with such nice manners).

posted by bitteschoen at 4:25 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


At least the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus doesn’t seem to include derogatory and offensive synonyms.
And the Merriam-Webster dictionary was just updated with "they" as a non-binary pronoun.
posted by bitteschoen at 6:15 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


I don't think the OED even in its focus on historicity should be considered immune from the need to review with clear hindsight past compilation decisions as far as that goes

No doubt. But it's not a matter of punching the "remove sexism" button. The last print edition of the OED is 20,000 pages, in twenty volumes. They've pretty much been working on it since 1879, but the focus was on adding words and citations. They're now revising every entry, which will take years.
posted by zompist at 6:34 AM on September 18, 2019


Just took a DNA test... turns out I'm 0% that bitch?

Nah, it's a seriously marked usage, and if you're going to go to Scots for "besom", you might as well include "cunt" as a synonym for man: I've heard it used more often than "cove". Regardless, and irregardless, of the ethical dimension, "bitch" and "hussy" are not synonyms for woman in commonly-understood English in C21. If you look it up, you almost certainly don't want a list of archaic or modern insults.

Tougher would be the usages of the word "woman" with the meaning of "partner in a relationship". That's not inherently derogatory, and it is a common usage. For that matter, I would argue that for English language learners (more likely to look up a word like woman), it's important to include derogatory usage in there - if your native language includes "woman!" as a form of address, you should know that the usage in English is impolite, and if you're wondering if your co-worker is referring to his daughter as "the little woman", you should have a resource to find out.

The example sentences are terrible examples of men writing "woman", and I wonder if they got there partially because of that. They have to catch someone's eye to be submitted.

Oh well, email to Oxford Dictionaries sent, maybe enough nudges will have an effect.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 7:26 AM on September 18, 2019


There’s now an article on CNN about this too, and of course, unsurprisingly, even if she says the response has been mostly positive:
Giovanardi told CNN that she herself had been subjected to online abuse -- and even rape threats -- since launching the petition.
posted by bitteschoen at 10:10 AM on September 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


They've pretty much been working on it since 1879, but the focus was on adding words and citations. They're now revising every entry, which will take years.

No one is, as far as I can tell, arguing that revising these entries--particularly the abridged entries most used by the Internet, which have an outsized impact on users--is going to be super easy or not time-consuming.

What folks are arguing is that revising this issue needs to be a priority, and that we need to consider what the stakes of that revision are. We are talking about how to define what it is to be a woman in a way that people understand. That is one of the reasons that the synonym list hits us so hard: is being a woman synonymous with being a bitch? (Every woman in my workplace that I know has confessed to feeling like the "office bitch.") Is being a woman synonymous with being a hussy? A housewife? A bird? Gentle? Frail?

For that matter, what does it mean to be female? The same Google dictionary search returns
of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.
That's actually pretty eyebrow-raising for a number of reasons.

  • First: it's pretty fucking cissexist.
  • Second: not all things and persons that might reasonably be described as female are remotely capable of either of these things. Consider phrases like gendered ships, tanks, and aircraft; consider the entire concept of gender, for that matter, as something which often references a web of social expectations and assumptions which have nothing to do with the eggs themselves. That "denoting" does a lot of work trying to reference all of these things, and it does so without actually pointing the confused student towards a place to read further.
  • Third: some animals that can bear offspring are not female (e.g. seahorses, most famously), and without further discussion, the definition as it stands is incorrect.
  • Fourth: this specific definition appears to be aiming at a particular specialized definition of male vs. female having to do with gamete production, but not all uses of "female" primarily reference this adjective, and even biologists tend to use this definition more in theory than in practice when assigning "male" versus "female" to their study subjects.
  • Fifth: This definition implies that gametes are the only thing that distinguishes male from female, but that definition exists only because so many organisms pick up "maleness" and "femaleness" and divide these roles in widely varying ways based on their own circumstances and context, and being the primary biological caretaker for offspring is not necessarily always allocated to female animals. Furthermore, when we talk about "male" vs "female" we usually aren't talking about gametes or reproduction directly, but about social roles and associations that humans have.

  • I like nikaspark's commentary upthread on cisness because the contributions of trans and non-binary people to discussions of gender is to force all of us to clarify what gender really means. What are we talking about when we say "female?" What does it mean to be female? What are the characteristics that we associate with the word "female?"

    These are important questions to ask, and it is clear that the existing answers are not good. The more institutional power a dictionary has, the more important it is that that dictionary take responsibility for that authoritative power in its collection. These things need to change.
    posted by sciatrix at 1:42 PM on September 18, 2019 [10 favorites]


    No one is, as far as I can tell, arguing that revising these entries--particularly the abridged entries most used by the Internet, which have an outsized impact on users--is going to be super easy or not time-consuming.


    And yet, it doesn’t have to be crazily difficult and time-consuming either, because it has already been done before! And exactly for similar reasons and complaints of sexism - I found this out via links from a post in the blog of one of the academics interviewed by the Guardian, Deborah Cameron, and here’s the Medium post she refers to, from 2016. It was about shocking sexism in the example phrases of some terms.

    Look at the screenshots of examples posted there. Now check those definitions on google (or in Apple’s Mac OS X Dictionary app, they’re the same, based on the Oxford Dictionaries, except the Dictionary app has sometimes more comprehensive entries), starting with rabid: it no longer has a rabid feminist as example phrase, but the show's small but rabid fan base.

    Similarly, shrill as a noun in the sense of a shrill sound or cry no longer has as example the rising shrill of women’s voices, but the shrill of a smoke detector filled the air.

    The noun psyche had as example I will never really fathom the female psyche, now it’s their childhood made them want to understand the human psyche and to help others.

    The noun doctor, alas, still has only examples with "he", no "she"; same for research.

    Housework used to have this example: she still does all the housework, now it’s I was busy doing housework when the doorbell rang.

    The adjective grating had the example her high, grating voice, now it’s been changed to a high, grating voice.

    The adjective nagging used to have as example a nagging wife, now it’s a nagging person; promiscous had as example she’s a wild, promiscuous, good-time girl, now it’s promiscuous teenagers | they ran wild, indulging in promiscuous sex and experimenting with drugs.

    So... it’s been done, it can be done again. Of course assessing whether to change synonyms and definitions is more complicated than changing only example phrases, but it doesn’t have to take forever if there is enough pressure and agreement.

    (NB that Medium post from 2016 highlighting all these examples got a lot of press and the author was an anthropologist and PhD candidate, Michael Oman-Reagan. A man. I really don’t want to think that Giovanardi would be treated differently if she were a male academic, I hope she gets the same level of attention from the press and the same level of response from the OUP and that something gets changed in the end as it was changed in that case.)
    posted by bitteschoen at 7:14 AM on September 19, 2019 [12 favorites]


    Man, I just came here to point out that this article made me recognize that my search hints are probably sexist too. I was trying to search for a fantastic dr. I met yesterday at planned parenthood for my colposcopy. She told me her primary hospital/health care affiliation when she’s not at Planned Parenthood.

    So I did a search for “[hospital] Dr [lastname]” it search hints me to two “[hospital] dr [lastname] [male firstname]” and does not suggest her until I added obgyn to my search.

    I’m curious now, so I look at her bio and the bios of the other two doctors. The two male doctors are just drs in their specialty, nothing particular to note; while she’s not only a practicing obgyn, she teaches medical students, and she’s on the board of directors for the local planned parenthood.

    I know, anecdotes aren’t data, and if I had more time, I’d pull other common last names and see how often this happens. But also, as a woman, I’ve fat too often seen these sexism issues usually turn out to be right on the nose when you can quantify them.
    posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:41 AM on September 19, 2019


    This is so funny. I did a few searches on man definition and the following results look straight out of a comic book. Not sure which dictionary do these sites use though:

    "(n.) A human being; -- opposed tobeast."
    (n.) One possessing in a high degree the distinctive qualities of manhood; one having manly excellence of any kind."
    "(v. t.) To furnish with strength for action; to prepare for efficiency; to fortify."
    posted by andrewmc at 4:11 PM on September 19, 2019


    I contacted them via email, and just got this link sent to me in their response.

    Mapping 'woman' in the Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford Thesaurus of English
    posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 9:05 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


    That's done weasel-worded bullshit from Oxford Dictionaries. "We're just reflecting actual usage, you can't hold us accountable!" is a bad fucking look. "Wench" is not commonly used to mean woman, and it is not marked as offensive or derogatory in their dictionary, but as humorous. Including it, and categorising it that way are both straight up editorial decisions, not purely neutral scientific reflective of contemporary usage line they'd face us believe. They're not reflective of contemporary usage at all.
    posted by Dysk at 1:19 AM on September 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


    Like yes, a descriptive dictionary will reflect the sexism is language use and society. But their response seems to suggest that they're precluding the very possibility that their editorial decisions might also be sexist by pointing out that they're reflecting societal sexism. Which, no. There's some of that, sure, but there's also a lot of questionable editorial decisions happening here, and they are refusing to even acknowledge that possibility, nevermind actually tackling their bullshit.

    Fuck you, OUP.
    posted by Dysk at 1:23 AM on September 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


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