Bird, bint, biddy, filly: Oxford dictionaries urged to ‘eliminate sexist definitions’

Thousands sign petition calling on publisher to delete entries that ‘discriminate against and patronise women’

Almost 30,000 people have signed a petition calling for Oxford University Press to change the "sexist" definitions of the word "woman" in some of its dictionaries.

Launched this summer by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, the petition points out that Oxford dictionaries contain words such as "bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly" as synonyms for woman. Sentences chosen to show usage of the word woman include: "Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman" and "I told you to be home when I get home, little woman". Such sentences depict "women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men", the petition says.

Signatories are calling on OUP to “eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women”, to “enlarge the dictionary’s entry for ‘woman’”, and to “include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc”.

In response, OUP's head of lexical content strategy Katherine Connor Martin has said that editors are investigating "whether there are senses of woman which are not currently covered but should be added in a future update".


Pointing out that the content referred to in the petition is not from the scholarly Oxford English Dictionary, but from the Oxford Thesaurus of English and the Oxford Dictionary of English, which are drawn from “real-life use” of language, Martin said: “If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory.”

“Nonetheless, part of the descriptive process is to make a word’s offensive status clear in the dictionary’s treatment. For instance, the phrase the little woman is defined as ‘a condescending way of referring to one’s wife’, and the use of ‘bit’ as a synonym for woman is labelled as ‘derogatory’ in the thesaurus,” said Martin. “Sensibilities regarding language are constantly changing, and our editorial team is always grateful for feedback to ensure that the status of offensive or denigrating terms is clear to our readers.”

The petitioners also criticise the fact that “the definition of a ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of a ‘woman’ – with 25 examples for men, compared to only five for women”. But OUP said that as its dictionary is based on “evidence of actual usage, entries for two different words will only be perfectly parallel if the words are genuinely used in a perfectly parallel way”.

At present, OUP said, the words man and woman are not used in identical ways. “For instance, sense four of ‘man’ is ‘a figure or token used in playing a board game’, but that meaning is not evidenced for woman,” said Martin. “Statistical analysis of large digital text databases shows that there are significant differences in how the words man and woman are used. People speak of a ‘man about town’ but rarely of a ‘woman about town’; of a ‘ladies’ man’ but not a ‘gentlemen’s lady’; of ‘womanly’ curves and wiles, but ‘manly’ handshakes and jawlines.”

Martin said that as the usage of English speakers changes over time, the dictionary would change to reflect the new lexical terrain. “The current cultural moment has seen an increasing acknowledgment of the real-life impact that words can have on individuals and groups. As this awareness leads to changes in linguistic behaviour, the dictionary will seek to record them,” she said.

The OUP added that dictionary staff “are taking the points raised in the petition very seriously . . . As ever, our dictionaries strive to reflect, rather than dictate, language so any changes will be made on that basis.” – Guardian