From “frumpy” to “feisty”, there are certain words in general conversation that are only ever applied – in a negative sense – to women. And this puts language on the frontline of an ongoing battle against sexism.
It’s a fight that chalked up an important victory today, as the Oxford University Press (OUP) agreed to remove the term “Essex girl” from one of its dictionaries.
The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which is used to teach English to foreign students, defines “Essex girl” as: “A name used especially in jokes to refer to a type of young woman who is not intelligent, dresses badly, talks in a loud and ugly way and is very willing to have sex.”
Needless to say, this massively offensive description has drawn the ire of many women both within and outside of Essex – including the Essex Girl Liberation Front, which has been campaigning for its removal.
Founded by mystery novelist and Essex resident Syd Moore (above), the organisation has been rallying against damaging and sexist stereotypes created by the term “Essex girl” – including dictionary definitions – since 2017.
It’s joined in its mission by Snapping the Stiletto, a Lottery-backed equality group that seeks to reclaim the notion of Essex girls and women, and what they represent to the wider world.
One of its supporters, Chelmsford-born author Sarah Perry, has even written a non-fiction book, titled Essex Girls that aims to reshape the cliché as an honorific term. As fellow writer Hilary Mantel points out in the blurb: “Not all Essex girls are party girls. They can be sages, martyrs, leaders. In her neat and provocative little book, Sarah Perry celebrates their courage and vivacity.”
Other famous Essex women who’ve backed the rebranding project include Dame Helen Mirren, champion rally driver Nabila Tejpar and Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike MBE. The latter two appear in a short film issued by the county tourism board last month (below), which disrupts few of the more offensive Essex stereotypes.
As some activists point out, it’s not the necessarily term “Essex girls” itself that’s so derogatory; rather, the way in which it’s deployed to put women down. The fact that dictionaries then integrate the term into their listings adds insult to injury.
“Girls feel they still have to listen to the same tired old jokes, feel like they have to fight twice as hard to be taken seriously at university,” Essex resident Juliet Thomas told the BBC, when the anti-Essex Girl campaign first surfaced in 2016.
“It’s tricky and disappointing to see it in writing in an official way. It reinforces it.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, which is also published by OUD, will keep its current definition of Essex Girl.
This reads as: “Essex girl n. [after Essex man n.] Brit. derogatory a contemptuous term applied (usu. joc.) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.”
The OUD previously explained that this is a history dictionary, so nothing can be removed from it (although definitions can be changed).
However, as the Guardian reported earlier this year, the organisation is working behind the scenes to clean up and re-clarify sexist language in its online editions.
Language matters because it’s a pivotal part of a much wider battle against gender discrimination. If these coded messages of sexism are available every time someone picks up a dictionary, they’ll have a continual trickle-down effect to society as a whole.
Much better, then, to challenge everyday sexist language as and when it arises – as this latest campaign has managed with aplomb.