In the changes made, labels have been added to identify some terms as ‘derogatory’, ‘offensive’ or ‘dated’.

Silhouette of a womanImage for representation
news Gender Monday, November 09, 2020 - 12:28

It took the year 2020 for the Oxford Dictionary to amend the sexist definition of the word ‘woman’ in its database, but it has finally happened, thanks to equality campaigners. The earlier definition of the word listed “bitch”, “bint”, “mare”, “wench” and “baggage” among words as synonyms for “woman”. According to The Guardian, the definition has been updated to acknowledge that a woman can be a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover, rather than only a man’s. The definition for the word “man” has also been changed to include more gender-neutral terms, and other phrases pertaining to sexual attractiveness and activity have been modified.

In the changes made, labels have been added to identify some terms as “derogatory”, “offensive” or “dated”. An Oxford University Press (OUP) spokesperson said that these modifications followed an “extensive review” of entries for ‘woman’ and several related terms.

This review happened after a 2019 petition that criticised the offensive synonyms such as “bint”, “wench” and “bitch” being listed as synonyms for ‘woman’. According to the campaigners, the dictionary’s definitions of ‘man’ were more exhaustive than that of a woman’s and portrayed the latter as “subordinate” or “an irritation.” The petition also called for the removal of phrases that were patronising or signified men’s ownership of woman, as well as the expansion of the definition to include transgender women and lesbian women.

The person behind the petition that gathered over 30,000 signatures was Maria Beatrice Geovanardi, who said she was “very happy” with the changes made. She added that the campaign had thus achieved 90% of its goals. However, she expressed disappointment that the word “bitch” continued to be listed, though now marked as “offensive”, to define a “spiteful, unpleasant, or disliked woman”.

However, an OUP spokesperson said that the dictionaries “reflect, rather than dictate, how language is used”. The spokesperson added that this means including senses and examples of words that are offensive and derogatory too, though they wouldn’t necessarily use the words themselves.

Interestingly though, Maria pointed out that unlike “bitch”, the word “dickhead”, used for a “stupid, irritating, or ridiculous man”, according to OUP, was listed as a “vulgar slang” and not included as a synonym for a man.

This International Women’s Day on March 8, leaders of Women’s Aid and Women’s Equality Party had also backed Maria’s campaign and signed an open letter asking OUP to change the definition.

“Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch. It is but one sad, albeit extremely damaging, example of everyday sexism. And that should be explained clearly in the dictionary entry used to describe us,” the letter had said. The letter was signed by many other linguists and academics.

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