January 27, 2016

Is the Oxford Dictionary of English sexist?


Last week, anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan tweeted at @OxfordWords to question the primary usage example under its definition of “rabid”: (adjective) having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 4.44.07 PM

While the word “rabid” does not technically have a negative connotation, it’s difficult to imagine a phrase like “rabid feminist” being used in a positive way. “I have tremendous respect for those rabid feminists!” (?) And, after noticing it, Oman-Reagan discovered that “rabid” is not alone in the sexist overtones of its usage examples.

In his piece for Medium, he noted, for example, the following:

Psyche: (noun) the human soul, mind, or spirit: I will never really fathom the female psyche.

Housework: (noun) regular work done in housekeeping, especially cleaning and tidying: she still does all the housework.

Grating: (adjective) sounding harsh and unpleasant: her high, grating voice.

Nagging: (adjective) (of a person) constantly harassing someone to do something: a nagging wife.

Promiscuous: (adjective) having or characterized by many transient sexual relationships: she’s a wild, promiscuous, good-time girl.

Oxford Dictionaries has since apologized for its initially “flippant” responses to Oman-Reagan’s query, and is revisiting usage of the word “rabid” (“‘rabid fan’ now has the highest frequency in the Oxford Corpus & ‘rabid supporter’ is also frequent,” @OxfordWords tweeted) but the meaningful take-away here isn’t whether or not Oxford Dictionaries, or even its publisher, Oxford University Press, is run by a bunch of misogynist jerks (I think probably not); it’s that we should be more conscientious about how our own speech patterns reinforce sexist attitudes.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.