Anglopolis: Sexist Dictionaries

In inglese non esiste un ente prescrittivo che detti una definizione canonica e stabilisca un uso corretto. Ciò permette all’inglese di essere una lingua flessibile, ma fa sì anche che determinate parole discriminatorie si insinuino nel linguaggio e perfino nei dizionari.

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Sexist Dictionaries

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The words we use shape the way we think about the world. Using sexist language reinforces sexist stereotypes. So, if we want a future without sexism, why are words like ‘bitch’ still in the dictionary?
Katherine Martin works for Oxford Languages, the organisation behind the world-famous Oxford English Dictionary (OED). She has no doubt that the word ‘bitch’, despite being sexist and derogatory, deserves a place in the OED. As she explains, the OED is designed to be descriptive, not prescriptive. That means it tries to record the English language as it is used, without judging how it should be used.

Katherine Martin (British accent): As lexicographers we deal in facts, we deal in evidence. Lexicographers look at their work as a cataloging. We’re compiling all of this information, we want to make facts available to the public. The word ‘bitch’ is similarly common to words like ‘volcano’ or ‘eyelid’ or ‘niece’, and so it would be absurd not to treat one of those words in the dictionary. And when we make a decision to include a word in the dictionary, we also want to show the full range of meanings that it has, because that’s part of what we do as lexicographers, is provide this comprehensive analysis of the word’s use, and so to not show any aspect of that word’s use would be akin to censorship.

Take care with synonyms

But what happens when sexist words, like ‘bitch’, appear out of context, online for example? Oxford Languages provides the online English Dictionary used by Google. So, if you look up a synonym through Google docs, the list of words that appears will be a complete, descriptive list and may include derogatory terms. It’s important for English learners to know this. For example, the Google Docs list of synonyms for ‘woman’ includes the sexist terms ‘bint’ and ‘bird’. It used to include ‘bitch’, too. In March 2020, Oxford Languages received an open letter signed by more than thirty thousand people complaining about this. The letter led Oxford Languages to review the way sexist words are presented online and try to provide more context so that users know if a word is derogatory.

Reclaiming sexist vocabulary

Sarah Ogilvie, a linguistics expert from the University of Oxford, notes that some people address sexist language by reclaiming it. She highlights the Pussyhat Project as an example of this. The word ‘pussy’ can mean ‘cute cat’ or it can be slang for ‘a woman’s genitals’. The Pussyhat Project, which raises awareness of women’s issues, was founded in 2016. The name was inspired by Donald Trump’s infamous line: “Grab ‘em by the pussy”. The Pussyhat Project encouraged people to knit their own pink pussyhat using a pattern posted online. On January 21st, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration as US president, thousands of people joined a Women’s March protest, wearing homemade pink pussyhats. The sexist word ‘pussy’ was being reclaimed.

Women-only adjectives

While some words are obviously sexist, others are sexist in a subtle way. Ogilvie points out that some negative adjectives are almost always used to describe women. One example is the word ‘bossy’, which is used to describe people (but usually women) who like giving orders. While the noun ‘boss’ is gender neutral and has a positive connotation of power and leadership, the adjective ‘bossy’ is negative and suggests annoying behaviour. In 2014, an online campaign called #banbossy was started by the American business woman and billionaire Sheryl Sandberg, among others. The campaign, aimed at encouraging girls to become leaders, warns that when a little boy is assertive, he is called a ‘leader’ but if a girl acts in the same way, she is often called ‘bossy’. The idea of the #banbossy campaign was to encourage self-censorship, that is, people should make a conscious decision to avoid using the word ‘bossy’.

Always changing

Language develops and changes naturally over time. Many words in the OED now have a † sign next to them to show they are obsolete. But can we fast-track that change to get rid of sexist language? Ogilvie suggests that social media is a much more powerful force for change than dictionaries. Although social media can be used to discourage sexist language  —as with the #banbossy campaign—, it is often a place where sexist language is invented and promoted. Ogilvie describes one new form of sexist stereotyping based on women’s names that originated in online forums like 4chan and Reddit.

Sarah Ogilvie (British accent): There’s this recent trend in pejorative words for women, especially for white women, which  is worth mentioning, which is the use of female first names. So you may have heard recently that a ‘karen’ is a middle-aged racist white mum who wears mum jeans and asks to see the manager when she’s in a restaurant, and now she’s refusing to wear a facial mask. And then we’ve got ‘beckys’: a ‘becky’ is a young ‘karen’ who’s equally entitled but it’s more like a new valley girl. And then you’ve got ‘stacys’: a ‘stacy’ is kind of like the new slut. It’s a white woman who’s especially confident in her sexuality. So all these words were born on the internet. The more vitriolic expressions that we find [used] against women, they were mainly created on 4chan and Reddit within subcultures there, such as the ‘incels’, who are the ‘involuntary celibate’ men who blame women for their lack of sex.

Obsolete words

But, as Ogilvie points out, even though new sexist words are entering the language, others are becoming obsolete: 

Sarah Ogilvie: It’s really important to keep in mind that language changes across time, so what is derogatory and offensive now won’t be for future generations. We might be able to fast-track this process of semantic change with petitions or by reclaiming terms of abuse. And we’ve seen some success with the word ‘geek’ and ‘queer’, and ‘slut’ to a certain extent. So keeping in mind that language naturally changes across time, I look forward to the day when an OED editor puts an obsolete marker on a lot of these sexist words.

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