Woman. Noun. An adult human female.
That’s benign enough of a dictionary definition. Dig deeper into Google’s definition of the word “woman,” though, and you’ll find some let’s just say outdated, language: Words like “bitch,” “maid,” and “frail” all currently pop up as “similar” when searching for the definition of the word “woman” on Google, which licenses its definitions from the Oxford Dictionary of English.
It was language like this that signers of a petition to Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford Dictionary of English, deemed “sexist,” finding fault with the way words like these “show women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men.”
Some of the words called out in the petition, including “bitch,” are currently deemed “derogatory” or “offensive,” while others, like “frail,” are not.
Reported in the Guardian on Tuesday, the petition called on Oxford University Press to change aspects of its entry for the word “woman,” and took issue with a double standard, noting that definitions for the word “man” used less offensive terminology. (A Google search for the definition of the word “man” currently offers “similar” words like “gentleman” and “youth,” and lists “a human being of either sex; a person,” as one of the word’s definitions.)
The signers of the petition, launched last year by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, stressed the importance of language in shaping public beliefs.
“The hard truth is that language does matter and does influence society,” Giovanardi said to Mashable, via email. “We want sexism to be taken as something that not acceptable, [and] not okay.”
To date, over 30,000 people have joined in on the call to update Oxford’s definition for the word “woman,” including notable linguists, like Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at Oxford University, and women’s rights organizations, like the Representation Project.
“This is completely unacceptable by a reputable source like the Oxford University Press, but it’s even more worrying when you consider how much influence they have in setting norms around our language,” the petition read. “These misogynistic definitions have become widespread because search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo license the use of Oxford Dictionaries for their definitions.”
That could be changing soon, though.
As reported in the Guardian, and confirmed via email to Mashable, Oxford University Press says it will be reviewing its dictionary and thesaurus entries for the word “woman,” and other related terms.
In a statement emailed to Mashable, an Oxford University Press spokesperson said that it will be expanding dictionary coverage of the word “woman,” clearly labeling offensive synonyms, and only using them where there is clear real world evidence of such usage, as well as applying the label “offensive” or “dated” to more terms for women and girls. Oxford University Press didn’t specify which words will get these labels.
The spokesperson said these changes will be visible across platforms that Oxford Dictionary of English shares language data with, like search engines including Google, Yahoo, and Bing, in the next few weeks. Addressing future changes to print dictionaries, the spokesperson told Mashable in an email that “the changes would be reflected in any future print dictionaries but the majority of dictionary use is now digital.”
The spokesperson continued:
“As an organization, we cannot change how people use language overnight, but we hope that initiatives such as International Women’s Day, which seek to support and empower women will eventually mean that these terms are no longer used in an offensive way—and that this can be reflected in our dictionaries.”