The evolution of the dictionary definition of 'woman'

The evolution of the dictionary definition of ‘woman’


How do we stop sexism? Step one — change the dictionary definition and sentence examples of the entry of “woman”.

This is what Oxford University Press have done, when earlier this year it “expanded the dictionary coverage of ‘woman’ with more examples and idiomatic phrases which depict women in a more positive and active manner,” according to a statement from the press.

The Press have updated its entry of “woman” in its dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary after a global petition called for an amendment.

“We have ensured that offensive synonyms or senses are clearly labelled as such and only included where we have evidence of real world usage,” the statement read.

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The collective action of thousands of people instigated the change, which compelled dictionary compilers to have an “extensive review” of the entries under “woman” and synonymous terms.

For example, previous definitions of a ‘woman’ were listed as a ‘man’s wife’ has now been altered to ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover.’

Previously too, under the definition of ‘woman’, the Oxford’s English Dictionary gave examples including these: “male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut,” and “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman.”

A spokeswoman from the Press said that collaborative procedures were undertaken to make these changes.

“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 petition, which began in August last year, was signed by over 34,000 people and included an open letter urging for ‘woman’ updated. 

“Did you know that if you are a woman, the dictionary will refer to you as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘maid’?” the petition explained. “And that a man is ‘a person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness’ or ‘a man of honour’ and the ‘man of the house’?”

“Dictionaries are essential reference tools, and the Oxford Dictionary of English is an essential learning tool, used in libraries and schools around the world,” the petition continued. “It is also the source licensed by Apple and Google, namely the most read online dictionary in the world.” 

“Its inclusion of derogatory terms used to describe women should aim at exposing everyday sexism, not perpetuating it.”

Oxford University Press explained in their statement that their dictionaries “reflect, rather than dictate, how language is used,” and that “This is driven solely by evidence of how real people use English in their daily lives.”

The Press added that the change is part of its continuous effort to “re-examine” language and labelling to ensure reflects the “modern audience.”

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