Oxford Dictionary Agrees to Review Language After Accusations of Sexism

Critics noticed that the word ‘rabid’ was associated with feminists.

(Photo: Marc Fusco)

Jan 25, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray feminists as rabid?

That’s the accusation made by anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan in a post he wrote for Medium last week in which he criticized the dictionary for using the primary example of “a rabid feminist” to help define the word rabid.

“Rabid feminist” is not the only example provided by the Oxford Dictionary of English that didn’t sit well with Oman-Reagan. He also pointed to words such as shrill (“the rising shrill of women’s voices”), psyche (“I will never really fathom the female psyche”), and housework (“She still does all the housework”) as examples of sexism embedded within the language.

“Having studied sociocultural linguistics, I know that dictionaries are not only describing language, they also prescribe and shape the way language and meaning is produced and standardized, whether that is the intention of a publisher or not,” Oman-Reagan wrote, noting that Oxford is the default dictionary used by Apple’s Mac OS X operating system.

When he questioned the publisher on Twitter, the Oxford University Press–owned company initially shrugged off the criticism, suggesting that Oman-Reagan himself was rabid. But on Saturday, as the tweets continued to garner attention online, the company apologized for the remarks it called “flippant” and agreed to review the example in question. It referred Oman-Reagan to a blog post detailing its use of example sentences.

Oman-Reagan is not the first person to voice concern over the Oxford Dictionary of English’s example of the word rabid. When TakePart reached out to the Memorial University of Newfoundland professor for comment, he referred us to writers such as Nordette Adams and anthropologists like Sarah Shulist and Lavanya M. Proctor, writing that he wanted “women’s voices up front.” He said he became aware of their work on the subject of linguistics and gender bias only after his own story got picked up by national news outlets.

Adams took notice of the language in the summer of 2014 and wrote about it on her blog, noting that the example is particularly troublesome because it’s also tied to Google’s definition of the word. “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 labeling or subtle propaganda is exacerbated by Google’s use of the Oxford dictionary.”

The debate over Oxford’s use of the word feminism comes at a time when activists have made strides to distance the word from connotations of fanaticism and extremism. Actor and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson revealed to the Evening Standard last month that she was initially warned not to use the term during a speech she gave while unveiling her gender equality initiative because U.N. advisers worried it might alienate the crowd.

“For the record,” Watson said during her speech at U.N. headquarters in September 2014, “feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” During a conversation in November, Watson and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai stressed the importance of rebranding the word as a means of achieving gender equality.

After seeing an overwhelming response to his Medium post and tweets about the issue, Oman-Reagan wrote in an update on Monday that he had hoped Oxford would listen to the questions people are asking about specific examples within the dictionary. “They’re in a position to come out strongly against that and to point out why language matters so much in these discussions,” he 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.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: Jan. 26, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the dictionary. It is the Oxford Dictionary of English.