Oxford dictionary considers changing ‘sexist’ definitions for ‘woman’

Oxford dictionary bosses consider changing ‘sexist’ definitions for ‘woman’ that include synonyms ‘bird’, ‘chick’, ‘wench’ and ‘lass’ after 30,000-strong protest petition

  • Maria Beatrice Giovanardi launched petition over ‘sexist’ definition of woman
  • She found Oxford English synonyms include b****, bint, filly and wench
  • Petition has been backed by 30,000 people over ‘unacceptable’ definitions 
  • Oxford is investigating but said dictionary ‘reflects, not dictates’ language 

Oxford University Press bosses are considering updating its definition of ‘woman’ after a 30,000-strong petition claimed it was sexist.

PR consultant Maria Beatrice Giovanardi is calling for the change after searching for definitions online for a branding project and finding results including b***h, bit, mare, baggage, wench, bird, bint, biddy and filly.

She discovered search engines are using Oxford definitions and later found more ‘sexist examples’ of the use of the word woman.

According to her petition, the Oxford examples of sentences using women include ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’, ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut ‘ and ‘I told you to be home when I get home, little woman’.

PR consultant Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, pictured, is calling for Oxford University Press to update its dictionary definitions of woman after finding synonyms including b***h, bint, filly, bird and wench

She discovered the definitions on Google, which has since updated its page to highlight the definitions are supplied by Oxford 

In her petition, Ms Giovarnardi said: These examples show women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men.

As well as all this, the definition of a ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of a ‘woman’ – with 25 examples for men, compared to only 5 for women.

This is completely unacceptable by a reputable source like the Oxford University Press, but it’s even more worrying when you consider how much influence they have in setting norms around our language.

‘These misogynistic definitions have become widespread because search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo license the use of Oxford Dictionaries for their definitions.’

She added: ‘Over a third of young women aged between 18 to 24 have been targeted by online abuse.

Oxford University Press said its dictionaries ‘reflect’ the use of language rather than ‘dictate’ it 

‘We can take a serious step towards reducing the harm this is causing our young women and girls by looking at our language – and this starts with the dictionary.’ 

But Oxford University Press said its dictionaries ‘reflect’ the use of language rather than ‘dictate how it is used’ and thus sometimes controversial examples are included. 

A spokesman said: ‘As ever, we appreciate feedback and comment on our lexical content but it’s worth reiterating that our dictionaries reflect rather than dictate how language is used which means that we include terms that are often considered pejorative or have negative historical associations.’ 

Head of lexical content strategy Katherine Martin has also recently written a blog on the topic and said the petition raised some ideas for consideration. 

She wrote: ‘Oxford University Press (OUP) publishes many different dictionaries, and we welcome input from members of the public to inform their ongoing revision. 

‘A recent public petition has expressed concerns about the treatment of the word woman in one of our dictionaries; the petition raises some useful points for consideration, but it also presents an opportunity for us to provide some context about the methods of lexicography. 

‘Often—and this case is no exception—there is a nuance to how words are defined and presented in our dictionaries, which is important to take into account.’ 

She added: ‘Because our dictionary is based on evidence of actual usage, entries for two different words will only be perfectly parallel if the words are genuinely used in a perfectly parallel way. 

So far 30,000 people have backed Ms Giovanardi and she said Oxford’s explanation did not satisfy her

‘Our editors are investigating whether there are senses of woman which are not currently covered but should be added in a future update.’ 

Ms Giovanardi said she was not satisfied with Ms Martin’s explanation and said sexism had no place in the dictionary regardless of the context. 

She told The Bookseller: ‘The blog post doesn’t address our concerns, rather it almost patronises the campaign and gives vague answers to 29.000+ people and that is worrying. 

‘For example, they haven’t responded to why more than half of the synonyms under ‘woman’ are offensive (and dated) terms. 

‘Sexism, just like racism, and any oppressive ways of talking, should have no place in society, and of course, texts like the dictionary.’ 

Since she launched her petition in June, both Bing and Google have added a credit to Oxford for their results for definitions on their search engines. 

Ms Giovanardi said: ‘We would love to claim this as our campaign’s first victory, and believe Google & Bing might have taken this step in order to disassociate themselves with the definitions. 

‘However as we can’t prove it, we are just celebrating it as a small first step on the road to victory!’

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