Misogyny in Australia no longer what it used to be

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

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).

Still, though the mechanics of the current shift are unfortunate, Macquarie would have had to make the change eventually. The Oxford English Dictionary gave in to the inevitable a decade ago. It’s official. A misogynist need not wish women any ill.

He need only have a prejudiced view of the gender’s capabilities, needs and attitudes.

The consensus on such matters is that no battle has been lost. All language evolves through usage. After a certain point, insisting upon the older meaning only makes you look like a berk. Consider “media”. As correspondents to newspapers never fail to tire of pointing out (these are, incidentally, the same people who droned on about the 21st century actually starting in 2001), that word is the plural of “medium”. You know how these things go. “Sir, Imagine my disgust at seeing the phrase ‘the media is agreed’ in your newspaper. ‘The media are agreed,’ I think. Blah, blah! Paper of record. Drone, drone! Falling standards.” And so on.

The notion of media as a singular noun is now so entrenched that – unless talking about collected representatives of that august body – the writer seems wilfully stubborn when he or she sticks to the old formation. One may (might?) as well wear a stovepipe hat and demand that ladies retire after dinner.

And yet. There is something irritating about the process of such semantic shifts. The lexicographer comes across like a busy parent who, after a long period of failing to discipline a disobedient child, eventually throws up the hands and says: “All right. Have it your way. Eat Smarties after brushing your teeth. Run with scissors.”

The masses stubbornly get things wrong until the indulgent authorities decide the fight is no longer worth having. The car journey will be much more peaceful if we allow the spoilt children to scream “disinterested” (something we expect judges to be) when they actually mean “uninterested” (an adjective that will describe the attitude of linguistic anarchists towards this article).

Returning to the current case, the language has become slightly depleted by the softening of the word “misogyny”. No other term accurately describes what we used to mean by that Greek derivative. So, at the risk of coming across as a fogey, this column announces its intention to scowl at Macquarie (as well as the OED) and stick with the old meaning. Not that anybody cares. Stupid modern world.

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