March 5, 2020

Derogatory dictionary debated; Brits bashed for bigotry


“Did you know that if you are a woman, the dictionary will refer to you as a “bitch” or a “maid”? And that a man is “a person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness” or “a man of honour” and the “man of the house”?

So begins a petition addressed to the editors of the august Oxford Dictionary of English. (Side note: a little-known law stipulates that the adjective “august” must precede every written reference to the Oxford dictionary. This is the same law that heavily regulates the usage of corollary words like “magisterial.”)  Started in September by activist and scholar Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, the petition asks that the dictionary omit examples that “show women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men.” The effect is particularly pernicious, notes The Guardian, since Oxford’s dictionary is licensed by Google and Apple, among other sinister monopolists digital companies, thus injecting the chauvinist usage into the very capillaries of the digisphere itself! Language is never neutral, kids! And neither is the dictionary.

As we wrote right here back in September, when the petition was first launched, we had kinda thought we were past the “whole prescriptive-vs-descriptive thing,” which we assumed had been “safely settled in favor of the descriptivists … but perhaps a swing towards prescriptivism is in order, given our increasing understanding of how potent language can be in the service of oppression?”

Since then our own convictions about the political and social valences inherent in language have only deepened! If we remember our Robin Lakoff correctly, meaning is constructed by linguistic framing, and what could be a more definitive framing than the examples given by a ostensibly definitive source?

As of Wednesday afternoon, Giovanardi’s petition has been signed by … 32,311 32,337 32,341 people, and counting … (You can watch the signatures accrue in real time here. It’s actually kind of mesmerizing, especially if you’re watching it instead of, say, reviewing page proofs. Just to choose a hypothetical scenario.)

Anyone who cares to join the managing editor in signing the petition can do so here. Now … about those page proofs …



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.