Last week, an anthropologist named Michael Oman-Reagan came across a rather cringeworthy entry in the Oxford Dictionary.
And that wasn’t the only example, either.
At best, these are embarrassingly antiquated entries that no one at Oxford had ever noticed. At worst, they noticed and just didn’t think equating rabid fervor and feminism or women and nagging and shrillness was a problem. And based on the company’s dismissive response to Oman-Reagan, I think we know which it is.
If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism… https://t.co/mAsmjUBoOs— Oxford Dictionaries (@OxfordWords) January 22, 2016
Oxford has since apologized for the “flippant” tweet, but the issue goes far deeper than one snarky response. It’s easy to forget that the dictionary, and sources like it, aren’t implicitly neutral. They have biases, but if those aren’t recognized, they’re accepted as natural and universal. Take, for example, some of the pronouns in these other example sentences. (Via Oman-Reagan)
Especially considering that Google pulls from Oxford, these unconscious biases are more prevalent than ever before.
The brilliant Nordette Adams wrote a piece about this very issue and example last year, which you should absolutely read in full. She maintains that words have extreme power, which I don’t think anyone would argue with, but they are perhaps even more powerful when a source like the dictionary is seen as neutral and unbiased.
The editors of dictionaries indeed influence human perception of the world and attitudes toward certain objects or phrases. Through examples, it can even shape the meaning of the word feminist when feminist is not the word the reader looks up.
She also points out that while feminists can, in certain instances, be described as rabid, there is a huge difference between an official example sentence (a “first choice”) vs. one entry on a list of possible examples.
Some feminists are extremely radical out there, but are they so common that “rabid feminist” should be an example in the dictionary? Of all the other possible examples Oxford Dictionaries could have chosen—such as rabid fan which is one of Dictionary.com’s examples, or rabid supporter, which is M-W.com’s example—what’s up with Oxford’s choice?
What if under dumb the dictionary’s usage example were “a dumb blonde”? Or if under anti-Semitic, “an anti-Semitic German”? Would we say then that the dictionary was showing an unkind bias?
And of course, it can’t go without note that, as brilliant as Adams’ analysis was last year, there is one major difference between her and Oman-Reagan, which he himself admits may be why he’s getting so much attention now.
I appreciate @OmanReagan 's activism around this, but seems another example of change happening only after a man points out the problem— Donna Lanclos (@DonnaLanclos) January 25, 2016
@OmanReagan When I was talking about this story, I mentioned that you're a man, because I knew it would be taken more seriously.— Laura Salas (@2getmesomepants) January 25, 2016
PSA: When people rightly remind you this news story broke, in part, because of my own privilege: don’t harass them, that's sexist & racist.— Michael Oman-Reagan (@OmanReagan) January 25, 2016
Oman-Reagan has said that his intention in bringing this up wasn’t to “call out” the Oxford Dictionaries, but rather just to bring attention to the issue. Still, anyone who’s spent more than a hot second on Twitter knows that reasonable debates aren’t exactly made for the medium.
If there's one thing you can count on, it's someone who wants attention pointing to a calm discussion and shouting "WHY ARE YOU SO OUTRAGED"— Amy Dentata (@AmyDentata) January 23, 2016
I feel lucky every day that I get to spend my time having conversations and sharing ideas with the people here at Pajiba, but it’s important to remember sometimes that this is an insular community of largely like-minded, open-minded, and generally brilliant individuals. These ideas that words have powerful, sometimes unconscious effects may seem commonplace to a lot of you. But the number of people shouting down this conversation as something inherently ludicrous is staggering. Even worse, the hashtags #RabidFeminism and #UseRabidFeministInaSentence (I do not recommend you scroll through those) are horrifying reminders that there are ons of people who do equate these words, not even unconsciously, but aggressively. And having the dictionary— THE DICTIONARY— back up their beliefs is unacceptable.