Anthropology / Everything Human

The Power of the Dictionary

The Power of the Dictionary

Dictionaries are typically viewed as being value-neutral. But they are just as steeped in culture and prejudice as the rest of the world—and they have the power to shape what we see as “normal.”

In late January, one of the authors of this piece—anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan—wanted to use the word rabid in a tweet about U.S. politics. Looking up the word in his MacBook’s dictionary, he noticed that the example given for the definition was the phrase “a rabid feminist.” Oman-Reagan posted a tweet to Oxford Dictionaries, which provides the content for MacBook dictionaries: “Hey @OxfordWords, why is ‘rabid feminist’ the usage example of ‘rabid’ in your dictionary—maybe change that?” Oxford’s social media response was mocking: “If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism,” implying, we presume, that Oman-Reagan too was a “rabid feminist.”

Frustrated, Oman-Reagan began to dig deeper into his computer’s dictionary and found a pervasive pattern of sexism. For shrill, the example was “the rising shrill of women’s voices”; for nagging, it was “a nagging wife” (now changed to “nagging parents”); for grating, “her high, grating voice”; for promiscuous, “she’s a wild, promiscuous girl”; for psyche, “I will never really fathom the female psyche.” The examples for occupations were often gendered in an archaic way—male pronouns were used to illustrate the definitions of research and doctor, while female pronouns were used to describe doing housework and the profession of nursing.

Conversations using the hashtag #OxfordSexism exploded on Twitter, and media outlets throughout the English-speaking world began to report the story, followed by articles about the issue in Swedish, Indonesian, Dutch, and other languages. Oman-Reagan helped to highlight the tweets of Sarah Shulist and Lavanya Murali Proctor (the other authors of this piece), both of whom are anthropologists—Shulist with expertise in language and dictionaries and Proctor in language and gender. Both Oman-Reagan and Shulist spoke to the press. After the issue went viral, Oman-Reagan also discovered that he had not been the first to see this pattern in the Oxford Dictionaries—a year and a half earlier, in 2014, a poet named Nordette Adams had written a blog post about Oxford Dictionaries’ use of “rabid feminist,” but it had received limited attention.

While most of the media stories were supportive of a feminist perspective, a large number of commenters on Twitter and various blogs were hostile to it. The debate was not just about a few words. It was about much deeper issues of sexism in language and linguistic authority—about how dictionaries are perceived, and about the nature and creation of linguistic meanings and truths. Is the description of a woman’s shrill voice sexist, or simply accurate? Are dictionaries objective, neutral reflections of language usage, or do they help to reinforce sexism?

Many of the online commenters defending Oxford Dictionaries’ work relied upon a “descriptivist ethos”: Dictionaries, they argued, simply describe how language is used—they do not prescribe how it should be used. A dictionary includes words because they are commonly used, not because it wants to legitimize, validate, or encourage particular ways of using them; that’s why dictionaries contain everything from the most offensive slurs to modern slang, like selfie.

Like the inclusion of words and their definitions, example sentences and phrases are meant to simply reflect usage. As Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, explained on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, their published examples aren’t written by dictionary compilers; they are taken from a huge corpus of web pages, novels, newspaper articles, academic journals, blog posts, and emails, amounting to a pile of some 2.5 billion words. Oxford Dictionaries uses software to determine the “most typical manner” in which a word is used so dictionary compilers can pick the best examples.

But there is something circular about the descriptivist argument, as noted in a New Yorker article about the debate: “Lexicographers say that the words and meanings they add to the dictionary have already been validated by the public’s use, but, to the public, a word’s inclusion in the dictionary is the thing that legitimizes it,” the author wrote. As University of Oxford feminist linguist Deborah Cameron notes on her blog, when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added cisgender to their listings in 2015, advocates hailed the move as proof that the word and all the implications behind it were valid—that it was a way of “making language more inclusive.”

People rarely question the authority of dictionaries, and the Oxford University Press name carries particular weight. Oxford Dictionaries provides the default dictionary used in iOS and Android operating systems and by Apple and Google apps. The press also produces the leading historical dictionary of the English language, the OED. Oxford’s authority takes on additional force in a world where the dictionary isn’t just a heavy, cumbersome tome but an easily accessed app that is automatically downloaded onto smartphones and tablets.

Every time we turn to a dictionary to illustrate a point or to prove that we understand the “true” and “accurate” meaning of a word or phrase, we reinforce the dictionary’s power as a purveyor of truth. It becomes easy to argue that women’s voices really are shrill or grating, and that feminists really are rabid about their beliefs—because it says so in the dictionary.

Although the idea has been a topic of criticism for decades now, the dominant Western construct of “truth” continues to revolve around the notion of a neutral, outside observer. The public seems to perceive dictionaries as being “extrasocial”—that is, unaffected by society’s attitudes and purified of its cultural baggage. It is, however, impossible for any text to exist outside of society, as both its creation and its use are colored by cultural expectations, beliefs, and practices. Real people rooted in cultural contexts build the dictionary, read the dictionary, and interact with it. The purportedly neutral example sentences and phrases emerge from these roots and reflect what the dictionary’s builders perceive to be “normal.”

Some of the commenters in this debate countered that not only were these particular examples mere repetitions of language-as-used, but also, they weren’t even sexist. They were simply true descriptions of a world in which women’s voices really are shrill and grating.

Even if dictionaries are true representations of the real world, the selection of examples as a whole has an undeniable impact. It is hard to make a convincing argument that a dictionary that repeatedly refers to things like female secretaries and bake sales staffed by moms isn’t revealing and reinforcing a sexist bias. There are only a small number of examples used for each word in the Oxford Dictionaries apps (although there are sometimes 20 or more in the website version). Given that they are designed to exemplify the most representative use of that word, their power, relative to their quantity, is clearly disproportionate.

In the end, Oxford Dictionaries’ Martin apologized for their use of “a rabid feminist,” saying it was “a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning.” A different phrase, such as “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan,” she noted, would have done a better job. Oxford did change this example sentence on the Oxford Dictionaries website, and they quietly rewrote a lot of the other examples too: shrill is now represented in the neutrally phrased “a shrill laugh,” and while grating still includes the old example, it is balanced with the new phrase “his grating, confrontational personality.” The versions of the dictionary that interface with commonly used apps and operating systems will take time to be updated.

The best examples of word usage, Martin writes, “are so ordinary as to be downright boring.” But the fact that sexism creeps into normalized, everyday spaces is precisely what is so disturbing. From a feminist perspective, examples of overt sexism may be ubiquitous, but they are anything but boring. The people who make decisions about what goes into the dictionary have the power to define not only terms like shrill but also the boundaries of normality.

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  • grimbrimm

    Language changes constantly without any regard to the supposed auhority of dictionaries or the people who compile them and the idea that anyone would base his opinion on any given topic on a dictionary example sentence is frankly ludicrous.
    I love how you people in the humanities get away with stuff like “Even if dictionaries are true representations of the real world, the selection of examples as a whole has an undeniable impact.” without, at any point, showing an actual impact on anything or anyone.
    Actually you are not even offering an argument you are just asserting that this is the way it is. Way to go.

    • Chaoticblu

      I do have to wonder how many people were already offended before he tweeted to the OED. I mean sure sometimes you don’t realize there’s something ‘negative’ going on but still I wonder…

  • Salik

    Are the editorial staffs of dictionaries inclusive enough socially, in ways that may reduce such biases not only regarding gender but also in other respects?

  • tassiebloke

    Shame on the OED, and especially to the functionary that replied to Oman-Reagan. Obtuse as well as offensive, since he wasn’t writing about feminism as such, but rather seeking a more neutral example for “rabid”. Since the word derives from the delirium that occurs to rabies victims, that shouldn’t have been beyond their imagination. But the litany of examples he uncovered is appalling—I will use by OED with much less respect in future.

    • Chaoticblu

      Agree the OED what pointlessly snarky to Oman-Reagan. Another reason for me to look down on them and them to not seem credible. But honestly these examples don’t really bother me. Just means it’s been a while since the examples have been updated so we just need to update them. I do think however the Oxford Dictionary should not be considered as valid as it is. As a lover of words and writing and correct usages, and just of the truth in general I’ve just read some things about them- including statements they themselves have made- that has made me lose respect. They are record keepers of the English language and I don’t think they’re taking that job seriously.

  • Chaoticblu

    Wow I’m irritated with the Oxford dictionary too but honestly I think you- and apparently a whole lot of other people on the internet- are jumping to conclusions here.

    As a level-headed woman I can see how the dictionary could use some updating (and have at it!) but I don’t think it’s deliberately sexist. The examples are just that: examples. if the women in your life aren’t shrill or rabid feminists good for them, but it doesn’t mean that the example sentences don’t make sense or have relevance in general.

    Honestly I think you’re just being too emotional and as someone very in tune with her emotions and doesn’t typically believe there is a such thing I rarely say that. So please don’t take it as patronizing, I honestly just think you’re getting worked up when it’s unnecessary and it’s just going to stress you out. If you want to be proactive though and get a petition going to update the definitions I’ll sign it.

    Personally though I find the rabid feminist thing funny but that’s because I’m an egletarian. But if any self-proclaimed feminists are offended by it I think they need to grow a thicker skin and be the strong confident women they claim to be. And again if they want to do something proactive about it that’s great.

    Again I agree that it would be nice to see some refreshing new examples but I really didn’t find this as interesting a piece as I was hoping to. I was hoping you were going to address the actual definition issue and how we need a better system in this country to define words and not let people twist the meanings of words, or just make up words that people find offensive- especially when they’re meant to label other people.

    I have to disagree with you though on what the nature of the dictionary should be. Dictionaries should be neutral and outside of society. In my opinion at least the whole point of the dictionary is to find out how to properly use and spell a word. It is a tool. So those words have to have concrete meanings. If people are allowed to willy-nilly use words as they see fit and twist meanings there’s just no point, no order, and no way to communicate effectively with each other.