Sexism row prompts Oxford Dictionaries to review language used in definitions

Woman Yawning

Cited usages such as ‘rabid feminist’ to be reconsidered following Twitter storm

Oxford Dictionaries has said it will review the example sentences it uses for the adjective “rabid” after being accused of sexism over its current example: “a rabid feminist”.

The dictionary publisher, part of Oxford University Press, was taken to task by the Canadian anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan, after he noticed that the word “rabid”, defined by the dictionary as “having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something”, used the example phrase “rabid feminist”. Oman-Reagan tweeted about it to the publisher, suggesting they change it.

Oman-Reagan, who is doing a PhD at the at Memorial University of Newfoundland, also highlighted other “explicitly sexist usage examples” in the dictionary; including “shrill” – defined as “the rising shrill of women’s voices”– and “psyche” – for which the example sentence is, “I will never really fathom the female psyche”. “Grating”, defined as “sounding harsh and unpleasant”, was illustrated with the phrase “her high, grating voice”, while the adjective “nagging” used the example phrase “a nagging wife”.

An example sentence given for “housework” was “she still does all the housework”, while a sentence using the word “research” was illustrated with the sentence “he prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches”.

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as ‘rabid feminists’ with mysterious ‘psyches’ speaking in ‘shrill voices’ who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do ‘all the housework’?” wrote the academic on Medium. “As the Oxford Dictionary says in the usage example for ‘sexism’: ‘sexism in language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees women’. Shouldn’t the usage examples in this dictionary reflect that understanding of sexism in language?”

Buzzfeed uncovered further gendered definitions, with usage for the word “nurse” including “he was gradually nursed back to health”, and “she nursed at the hospital for 30 years”, while examples of usage for doctor all used the male pronoun.

Oxford Dictionaries initially responded flippantly to Oman-Reagan, replying to his criticism of its choice of “rabid feminist” with the tweet: “If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism …” and going on to say that: “Our point is that ‘rabid’ isn’t necessarily a negative adjective, and that example sentence needn’t be negative either … our example sentences come from real-world use and aren’t definitions.”

But – as “rabid” became the most popular search term on its site over the weekend and as Oman-Reagan found himself deluged with harassment online – the dictionary subsequently apologised for its tone, saying that it was “flippant in some of our tweets yesterday”.

“‘Rabid fan’ now has the highest frequency in the Oxford Corpus and ‘rabid supporter’ also frequent,” said the dictionary’s Twitter account, adding that it would now “review the primary example sentence used for ‘rabid’.”

In a statement on Monday, a spokesperson for OUP added that the Twitter comments had been “ill-judged”.

“We apologise for the offence that these comments caused,” said the statement. “The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press. That said, we are now reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage.”

The OUP spokesperson added that the publisher reviews “all of our example sentences to ensure they reflect current usage on an ongoing basis”, and would also be reviewing the other examples raised by Oman-Reagan.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alison Flood, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th January 2016 12.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010