Oxford Dictionaries' Sexist Usage Examples, Including "Rabid Feminist," Need To Change

If you want to look up "sexism" in the dictionary, turns out you don't necessarily need to go to the entry for the word itself. Oxford Dictionaries sexist usage examples are for words like "shrill," "psyche," and "housework." Though the most egregious is probably the entry for the word "rabid." Usage example: "a rabid feminist." Yikes.

Oxford Dictionaries of English (not to be confused with the iconic Oxford English Dictionaries) is perhaps best known for being the default dictionary for Apple's Mac iOS X operating system and for occasionally picking really awesome words of the year. But despite the type of forward thinking that causes someone to pick an emoji as the word of the year, or to add "manspreading" or "hangry" to the dictionary, entries for some words in Oxford Dictionaries seems far behind the times, as Michael Oman-Reagan writes in Medium.

There are a surprising number of examples. For the word shrill, the example given is, “the rising shrill of women’s voices.” For “psyche” it's, “I will never really fathom the female psyche.” For “grating” you get, “her high, grating voice.” "Nagging" is listed alongside the example phrase, “a nagging wife.” And for "housework" you get the example, "She still does all the housework."

Meanwhile, words like "doctor" or "research" have examples involving men, but not women.

And, of course, the entry for "rabid" is: "Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist." Because the portrayal of feminism and feminists as extreme or fanatical has definitely not been detrimental to the cause of women's equality at all.

"Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as 'rabid feminists' with mysterious 'psyches' speaking in 'shrill voices' who can’t do reseach [sic] or hold a PhD but can do 'all the housework'?" Oman-Reagan writes on Medium. And it's a good question.

After all, language is not only a reflection of our thinking, it has the power to shape our thinking. The words we use and the way we use them have an impact on the world, and on how people perceive it. It's something Oxford Dictionaries themselves acknowledges in their slogan: "Language Matters." And that's why language that perpetuates sexist modes of thinking — or that props up any other discriminatory mindset, such as racism or homophobia — is so much more than just harmless examples.

The way in which various words have been used to criticize and discredit women's voices — words like "shrill" or "nagging" or "grating" — have the effect of undermining women and what we have to say, and even making women more reluctant to speak in the first place. After all, what if someone thinks we're just nagging? Similarly, portraying women's "psyches" as inherently strange has the effect of othering women, making us mysteries instead of people. And, of course, the stereotype of the "rabid feminist" speaks for itself.

These words and the way we use them have an impact on our attitudes and our perceptions as a society, whether we're consciously aware of that as individuals or not. And when sexist attitudes are enshrined in the dictionary, that's practically a textbook example of institutionalized sexism. In fact, it even fits the Oxford Dictionaries definition of sexism: "Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex."

Oxford Dictionaries initially responded to the concerns Oman-Reagan listed in the article with a flippant tweet essentially ignoring the prejudicial effects of their example.

Because real-world usage examples can't ever be sexist and it definitely doesn't matter if the ones you pick for the dictionary happen to be, and also suggesting that rabies isn't a bad thing is preferable to admitting maybe you've messed up.

Fortunately, Oxford Dictionaries seems to have changed its position and realized the error of its ways. They later tweeted:

So hopefully those examples start changing soon. Because the dictionary is no place for sexism. Words have the incredible power to shape our thoughts and our world, to revolutionize and to reinvent. But if their very definitions are regressive, then what chance do we have?

Image: Giphy