The importance and impact of word choice

Oxford Dictionaries have been forced to review the wording used in their definitions, following suggestions that some of their content was sexist, sparking a debate about whether or not sexism and other forms of discrimination are inherent in aspects of our language.

The discussion was started when the Canadian anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan tweeted the dictionary publisher after noticing that their definition for the word “rabid”, defined as “having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something”, listed the phrase “rabid feminist” as an example. After suggesting they change it, Oman-Reagan went on to highlight other definitions which he described as having “explicitly sexist usage examples”. These included, among others: “shrill”, defined as “the rising shrill of women’s voices”; “psyche”, with a demonstration sentence, “I will never really fathom the female psyche”; “nagging”, which employed the example phrase “a nagging wife”, and “housework”, accompanied by “she still does all the housework”. A number of people went on to join in with the debate; further gendered definitions were later uncovered by Buzzfeed, such as the use for the word “nurse”, which included “he was gradually nursed back to health” and “she nursed at the hospital for 30 years”. Meanwhile, all usage examples for the word “doctor” used male pronouns in their sentences.

Given that the number of people who actually sit down and read the dictionary on a day-to-day basis is likely at an all-time low, not to mention the fact that most people in the modern world will be aware that “doctor” and “nurse” are not gender-specific roles, this might not seem the most important discussion of the week. Indeed, the initial response from Oxford Dictionaries treated the matter light-heartedly, responding to Omar-Reagan with the tweet: “If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism…”, although they have since issued an apology for the “flippant” nature of their remark.

Nonetheless, this raises a number of interesting questions about linguistic and rhetorical power. Whether the dictionary reflects the way in which these words are most frequently used or vice versa, it is perhaps difficult to expect our attitudes towards gender equality to change if we are yet to update the words with which we talk about them. Why not take a moment to think up, off the top of your head, another common example of the word “rabid” or “nagging” or “housework” being used? The fact that some people will find this difficult suggests that the language we use could carry more influence than we realise.

It was accusations of dictionary sexism around which this particular incident centred, but it is perhaps equally important to consider the other forms of discrimination which could be at play in our language. One example is the way the word “black” is employed in various words and expressions in the English language; to name but a few: “blackguard”, “black hearted”, “blacken” (meaning “to defame”), “blacklist” and “black sheep”. Meanwhile, “white” is a colour most often associated with purity and innocence, and a “white lie”, a phrase which Malorie Blackman cleverly parodies in her Noughts & Crosses series, refers to a dishonest statement spoken with good intentions, and thus a lesser sin. When we use these words, we aren’t consciously intending to be racist, but the implication remains all the same.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”: now, Oxford Dictionaries have provided us with further proof of the falsehood of this idiom.


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ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “The importance and impact of word choice”

  1. It’s interesting how those tried to protest the definition of rabid proved to fulfill the definition of rabid feminists. The irony.

May 2022
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