Oxford dictionaries change 'sexist' and outdated definitions of the word 'woman'

ByChristina Zdanowicz, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Earlier this year, Oxford University Press changed its entry for "woman" in its dictionaries to include more positive ways to describe a female.

(CNN) -- Even the dictionary can be sexist and out of date, especially when it comes to how a "woman" is described.

Earlier this year, Oxford University Press changed its entry for "woman" in its dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, to include more positive ways to describe a female.

"We have expanded the dictionary coverage of 'woman' with more examples and idiomatic phrases which depict women in a positive and active manner," according to a statement from OUP. "We have ensured that offensive synonyms or senses are clearly labelled as such and only included where we have evidence of real world usage."

Phrases such as "woman of the moment" were added to equal the old saying of the "man of the moment." And one of the definitions of "woman" now refers to a "person's wife, girlfriend, or female lover," as opposed to being tied to only a man.

The definition for "man" was updated to include gender-neutral terms and references to "sexual attractiveness or activity" were revised for "man" and "woman" entries.

OUP said its lexicographers regularly review entries to make sure they are accurate. This time around, the voice of the people helped create change, an OUP spokeswoman told CNN in an email Monday.

"Sometimes the team focus on topics highlighted by user feedback (such as last year's petition about the definition of 'woman') and sometimes these topics are driven by current events or through projects taking place within the Oxford Languages team," the spokeswoman wrote.

She cited work the organization has done on words relating to race, racial diversity and the use of "they" as a pronoun for nonbinary people as other examples this year.

A Change.org petition in 2019 called for OUP to remove "sexist" terms for a woman. Tens of thousands of people signed it.

The suggestive phrases about women included: "Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman;" "I told you to be home when I get home, little woman;" and "If that does not work, they can become women of the streets."

While the OED itself does not feature these definitions above, they do appear in other reference books produced by the publisher, as well as online dictionary Lexico, which takes its content from OUP dictionaries.

"Our dictionaries reflect, rather than dictate, how language is used," OUP wrote in the statement. "This is driven solely by evidence of how real people use English in their daily lives."

With that in mind, lexicographers reviewed examples in its dictionary data to make sure representations of woman were "positive and active," the organization said.

The review looked at the definitions of "man" and "woman," as well as the examples of the word being used in a sentence, labels and synonyms. It also looked at entries that are associated with women.

Labels were added to "offensive, derogatory, or dated" terms. The synonyms were also evaluated to make sure they are genuine synonyms.

The synonyms for "woman" had listed "wench," "piece" and other derogatory terms last year. Some of those synonyms in the OED were removed and others have a label, such as the the word "bitch" being an offensive one.

The definition of "housework" was updated to take gender out of the equation in the dictionaries. "She still does all the housework," was changed to "I was busy doing housework when the doorbell rang."

The organization says all of this is part of the ongoing effort to "re-examine" language and labeling to make sure it's up to date for a "modern audience."

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