Oxford University Press has apologised for its “flippant” response to a discussion about sexism in its world-famous dictionaries, resulting in a review of the example sentences used for the word ‘rabid’.
The issue blew up when anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan tweeted verified Oxford Dictionaries account @OxfordWords asking, “Why is ‘rabid feminist’ the usage example of ‘rabid’ in your dictionary – maybe change that?”
Writing on medium.com, Oman-Reagan reveals that as well as the ‘rabid’ reference to feminists, example sentences for other words appear to have a sexist slant by dint of the choice of pronoun – finding that examples for words such as ‘doctor’ and ‘research’ refer to ‘he’ and ‘his’, while ‘housework’, ‘promiscious’ and ‘shrill’ point to women.
Oxford Dictionaries initially replied to his message by writing, “If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism” and later defended its choice of sentence as coming from “real-world use”.
However as Oman-Reagan and many others have since pointed out, common usage doesn't necessarily mean that a respected authority on language should actively make a choice to use gender in an example of a word that is genderless itself, even though it may have the historical context of being used against that gender.
After ‘rabid’ became the top-searched word on its website, an Oxford University press spokesperson backtracked, saying: “We apologise for the offence that these comments caused.
“The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press. That said, we are now reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage.”
Choice is the key issue here – using neutral sentences would not diminish the demonstration of the word, yet a choice has been made to perpetuate ideas such as ‘nagging’ wives and ‘grating’ female voices.
Interestingly enough, following the row, the Twitter account chose to push out a 2012 post from a guest blogger on the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
Oman-Reagan later said in an update: “After their reaction, I wanted to see Oxford make a clear statement denouncing all of the misogynistic abuse people are getting simply for having this conversation. They’re in a position to come out strongly against that and to point out why languge matters so much in these discussions […]
“When Oxford editorially selects example sentences reproducing sexist stereotypes, they are making implicit, prescriptive statements about gender and language. If Oxford believes it is important to tell users that the word ‘shrill’ has historically been applied primarily to women’s voices, they should say that clearly, not cover it up and hide it in a usage example.”
He ends his piece by helpfully reminding those behind Oxford Dictionaries that the usage example for ‘sexism’ reads: “Sexism in language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees women.”
Images: Rex Features / Thinkstock