The blatant sexism of the English language is no new discovery. In fact the very basis of human evolution describes ‘man’ evolving from great apes. We constantly use words like ‘mankind’ and ‘man-made’ without realising the sheer sexism they revolve around. In Circa 1490 when Leonardo da Vinci created The Vitruvian Man he described it as “the proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius” which depicts the true idealistic man. His depiction has since formed the basis of hotels, hospitals and companies creating tables and chairs around the very same proportion.

Even words like ‘doctor’ and ‘lawyer’ are used with an invariable masculine pronoun whereas words like ‘nurse’ and ‘babysitter’ are seen with feminine personal pronouns. In fact there are even some words with no masculine counterparts such as ‘maid’. All of these examples found in the Oxford dictionary inevitably play a huge role in our understanding of the world around us. As the default dictionary of Mac OS X operating system i.e. available in Macs, iPads and iPhones it holds a heavy seat in our subconscious minds. As a child growing up in the non-digital 90s I too had a pocket Oxford dictionary I would keep with me at all times.

This overt sexism has been in constant scrutiny for the past few years and once again came to light at the beginning of 2016. Michael Oman-Reagan, an anthropologist and PhD student noticed some alarming innocuous sexist words and highlighted the same to them via Twitter:

  1. Rapid (adj): Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support or of belief in something: a rapid feminist.
  2. Nagging (adj): Of a person constantly harassing someone to do something: a nagging wife.
  3. Psyche (noun): The human soul, mind, or spirit: I will never really fathom the female psyche.

Moreover, other than certain nouns and adjectives he discovered professions described in a sexist manner as well. The word ‘researcher’  was illustrated with ‘he prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches’ whereas the word ‘housekeeper’ had the example sentence ‘she still does all the housework’. Such examples when read by children, adolescents and even adults help form stereotypes. It is no wonder that even today, in the 21st century, woman are not seen as the default and treated with less respect as compared to men. In a household with both working parents there is still a possibility that a child will see his father as the breadwinner. Of course, and why shouldn’t he. When his mother is probably a ‘nagging rapid feminist with a unfathomable psyche’.

Needless to say Oman-Reagan’s question caused a stir in society. In their defense the Oxford University Press claimed that their work is largely based on how words are actually used in society, “The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press” (The Guardian 2016). The New Yorker (2016) states that “in order to address such patterns dictionary editors and readers must decide whether it’s possible to hold up a mirror to language without sanctioning an ugly side”. To be fair, I do see the Oxford University Press as a descriptive institution. They have recognised words like ‘bae’, ‘twerk’ and ‘fandom’ – all words created or popularised by marginalised communities and which may not have been added had it been a prescriptive dictionary (Reagan 2016).

Although, their descriptive nature poses an even bigger question, ‘As society are we the ones at fault?’. I believe that the choices of what to include in a dictionary is arguably, innately political. There is an orbicular logic to the descriptivist ethos: as per the lexicographers the words and meanings they add to the dictionary have already been approved by the public’s use, but, to us as the public, a word’s inclusion in the dictionary is what legitimises it. This is why feminist linguistics around the world argue that in certain scenarios lexicographers should put a thumb on a scale.

The Guardian (2016) took this opportunity to discuss another troublesome trend in the evolution of the English language over the past few centuries. Certain words which were initially neutral in their inception have come to become pejorative over the centuries. Their original meaning is now lost, and their present day meaning, irrespective of its diminutive nature has become the widely accepted one. Some examples are:

  1. Mistress
    Original Meaning: A woman having control or authority.
    Present Day Meaning: A woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship.
  2. Hussy
    Original Meaning: Female head of a household.
    Present Day Meaning: A disreputable woman of improper behaviour.
  3. Madam
    Original Meaning: A woman of high rank.
    Present Day Meaning: The female manager of a brothel.
  4. Governess
    Original Meaning: A woman who holds or exercises authority over a place, institution or a group of people.
    Present Day Meaning: A woman responsible for the care, supervision, or direction of a person, typically a child.
  5. Spinster
    Original Meaning: Someone, usually a woman, who spins yarn or thread.
    Present Day Meaning: A woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage.

It is ironical that the usage example for sexism in the Oxford dictionary is ‘sexism in language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees woman’. As Oman-Reagan (2016) states in his blog, “When Oxford editorially selects example sentences reproducing sexist stereotypes, they are making implicit, prescriptive statements about gender and language”. Sexism in language has continually existed for centuries now and is in its own way responsible for perpetuating stereotypes. We, as society, need to collaboratively exert ourselves to make changes in the way we speak and write.




2 thoughts on “Of Oxford Dictionary and Sexism

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