Misogyny in Australia no longer what it used to be
There is something irritating about semantic shifts in the meaning of words
IT’S NOT often that lexicography makes the news. But something of the sort has just occurred in Australia. By now, you should be aware of the controlled attack by Julia Gillard, that nation’s prime minister, on Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition, in Parliament House.
The fact that Gillard is not a particularly brilliant orator actually made the speech seem that bit more impressive. There were no glib flourishes. This was a sincere – and lengthy – expression of her belief that Abbott exemplifies a strain of misogyny in Australian life. Tony wore the face of a man whose wife had just decided to reveal dubious corners of his internet search history to assembled pals at the golf club bar.
Where were we? Oh, yes, lexicography. In an unexpected epilogue to the story, the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English has decided to broaden its entry on “misogyny”. The publishers argue that Gillard’s speech confirms that, whereas in the past the word meant “outright hatred of women”, it is now often used to describe “entrenched prejudice against women”.
There is a genuine distinction here. It is quite possible for me to believe that you, madam, are a pretty little thing with a head full of frolicking kittens – quite incapable of flying a plane or running a major company – while still retaining the greatest affection for you and the rest of your fragile gender. Before the waters muddied, such a view would have identified me as a sexist without quite confirming me as a misogynist.
Sue Butler, editor of Macquarie, explained the publication’s thinking. “Since the 1980s, misogyny has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of entrenched prejudice against women rather than pathological hatred,” she said.
It remains an odd decision. A glance at Gillard’s speech confirms that there are plenty of references to outright misogyny (by the old definition). She describes, for example, Abbott standing beside signs that urged voters to “ditch the witch”.
Moreover, it doesn’t do for a distinguished dictionary to look as if it is revising its entries on the basis of every passing news story. Even linguistic reactionaries such as your current correspondent admit that meanings of words must change. But those alterations should happen at the pace of glaciers rather than of typhoons. Slowly, incrementally, a word like, say, “fantastic” passes from one meaning (relating to fantasy) to another (describing anything rather wonderful).