Oxford University Press has changed the definition of ‘woman’ from its dictionary. This move comes after a petition filed in 2019 criticizing several derogatory synonyms such as ‘bitch’, ‘bint’, and ‘wench’ associated with women in the dictionary.
Oxford Dictionary changed its sexist definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and made them gender neutral
The petition, started by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, has reached 30,000 signatures. It received the support of the leaders of Women’s Aid and the Women’s Equality Party on International Women’s Day this year. The leaders signed an open letter addressed to Oxford University Press, demanding that they change the “sexist” definitions.
The letter read, “Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch. It is but one sad, albeit extremely damaging, example of everyday sexism. And that should be explained clearly in the dictionary entry used to describe us.”
According to The Guardian, the petition argued that the examples used to define ‘man’ were more exhaustive than for ‘woman’, and that the dictionary presented women as “subordinate or an irritation”. One example read: “Ms September will embody the professional yet sexy career woman.” Another read, “…male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut.”
The petition demanded that the phrases that “discriminate and patronise” or “connote men’s ownership” of women be eliminated. The petition also demanded a broader definition of ‘woman’ – one that would include transgender and lesbian women.
Among the many changes made, Oxford University Press eliminates the heteronormative idea of a woman. It is acknowledged that a woman can be “a person’s wife, girlfriend, or female lover” rather than just a man’s. Words such as ‘bitch’ and ‘bint’ are now labelled as “derogatory”, “offensive”, or “dated”.
An Oxford University Press spokesperson said that the changes took place after an “extensive review” of entries “for ‘woman’ and many other related terms.”
Giovanardi expressed her happiness with the changes that the campaign brought about. The inclusion of gender-neutral terminology marked “a huge step forward for the LGBTQI people”. “It is respecting their love and unions,” she said.
The Oxford University Press spokesperson said that the dictionary reflects how language is used, and does not dictate it. She also stated how the campaign allows for a nuanced approach to understanding language.
Our language reflects how society views us
While this change might seem like a small dent in the patriarchal universe, it is a significant one. Earlier this year, the United Nations expressed the importance of using gender-neutral language as a way to practise equality.
The way we address each other dictates how society views us – this is why gender binaries and gender roles exist. Many instances of sexism in the workplace stem from the language that is used – the word ‘ambition’, for example, has a different connotation when used on women. An ambitious man is considered normal, an ambitious woman is often seen in a negative light. Similarly, terms like aggressive, hysterical, and emotional are used exclusively for women, though there is no such compulsion for it to be so.
Acknowledging that a particular term comes with a history, or is derogatory or sexist, develops in a person the sensibility of knowing how heavy a slur can be. We’re on board with small (but important) developments like these!
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