Is Oxford Dictionaries perpetuating sexist stereotypes?
That’s the question asked by Memorial University of Newfoundland PhD student Michael Oman-Reagan, who has criticized the dictionary’s use of what he calls “explicitly sexist” examples.
The word rabid, for example, comes with the usage example “rabid feminist”, according to the entry at OxfordDictionaries.com, while grating is explained with the phrase, “her high, grating voice.”
Oman-Reagan, an anthropologist, also critiqued the examples used for words that don’t need to be gendered, such as housework (“she still does all the housework”), shrill (“the rising shrill of women’s voices”) and psyche (“I will never really fathom the female psyche”).
“Why are they choosing particular sentences which reenforce (sic) sexist stereotypes?” he wrote in a recent post at Medium.
“When Oxford editorially selects example sentences reproducing sexist stereotypes, they are making implicit, prescriptive statements about gender and language. If Oxford believes it is important to tell users that the word ‘shrill’ has historically been applied primarily to women’s voices, they should say that clearly, not cover it up and hide it in a usage example.”
Oman-Reagan began tweeting out what he found on Jan. 21, asking the dictionary to clarify how it chooses the examples. Oxford Dictionaries then replied with the tweet: “If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism ...”
The dictionary later apologized for its “flippant” response and said it would review the entry for rabid.
Oxford Dictionaries employs more than 1.9 million example sentences. All “real examples of usage,” the phrases are taken from newspapers, magazines, journals, fiction and blogs.
Contacted by email, a spokesperson for Oxford Dictionaries referred the Star to a blog post written by Katherine Connor Martin, the head of content creation. The “rabid feminist” example, Connor Martin wrote, is “an accurate representation of the meaning of the word.”
But she conceded that the phrase “was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning.”
“A more generic example, like ‘rabid extremist’ or ‘rabid fan’, would also have been supported by evidence on our corpora, and would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts,” she wrote.
Oxford Dictionaries did not immediately answer the Star’s followup questions, including whether the rabid example phrase would be removed. As of midday Tuesday, “rabid feminist” still appeared at OxfordDictionaries.com.
In an email to the Star, Oman-Reagan said he wanted “women’s voices up front” and pointed to Nordette Adams, who talked about the rabid usage example on her blog in 2014.
“The image of the ‘rabid feminist’ is one conjured and promoted most often by people who don’t like feminists,” Adams wrote.
“In the case of the word ‘feminist,’ the potential for damage through this labelling or subtle propaganda is exacerbated by Google’s use of the Oxford dictionary.”
Oxford Dictionaries is the default dictionary when words are entered into the Google search bar.
Oman-Reagan said he wanted Oxford to denounce the abuse people are receiving for engaging in the conversation online, and address the questions being raised about the phrases.
“They should listen to women about this,” Oman-Reagan wrote.
“There are writers, scholars, doctors, philosophers, and everyday women who are clearly telling Oxford what they think about this on Twitter. Oxford should listen to these voices.”
Oxford English Dictionary has made amendments to definitions, spellings and usage phrases in the past.
The dictionary said it would review the word marriage in 2013 after same-sex unions were legally recognized in the U.K. Marriage is “the legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman (or, in some jurisdictions, two people of the same sex) as partners in a relationship,” the definition at OxfordDictionaries.com reads.
Oxford ‘literally’ changed the definition of this word in 2013. Using literally to mean matephoricially — as opposed to its original definition, of taking something “in a literal sense” — reflects the popular way the word is now being used, dictionary editors said.
Oxford Dictionaries confirmed the spelling of ‘twerk’ last year when editors discovered that ‘twirk’ was first used in 1820 to describe “a twisting or jerking movement; a twitch.” The word is now commonly associated with New Orleans bounce music from the 1990s and more recently, with Miley Cyrus and other artists’ dance moves.
Oxford weighed in on the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun to designate individuals without making a distinction between the genders last year. People have used the word “to refer to a person of unspecified sex” since at least the 16th century and it is “increasingly common in current English.”