A Google search for the definition of “woman” turns up a slew of terms, all sourced from Oxford University Press (OUP). The first words have always been “lady” and “girl” but if you keep scrolling, more … colourful … descriptors appear.
“Frail,” “maid,” and “bitch” are just a few examples.
The definition for “man” contains derogatory terms as well, but seemingly less so.
Oxford has always labelled words with negative connotations but will make a greater effort to downplay hurtful words, thanks to the efforts of Maria Beatrice Giovanardi. Last summer she launched a petition, calling on Oxford to update its “sexist” language.
Oxford conducted an investigation and agreed, announcing Tuesday it would be making updates, including labelling more words as offensive (currently, ‘broad’ and ‘wench’ fall into the standard definition).
In an interview with The Guardian, Oxford said the changes will be visible on all platforms, including on major search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Lexico “in the next few weeks.”
An OUP spokesperson told The Guardian the previous definitions weren’t an indication of bias, but rather, a reflection of how language has been used.
“Our dictionaries reflect, rather than dictate how language is used,” the spokesperson said.
“This is driven solely by evidence of how real people use English in their daily lives. This independent editorial approach means that our dictionaries provide an accurate representation of language, even where it means recording senses and example uses of words that are offensive or derogatory, and which we wouldn’t necessarily employ ourselves. In cases where words and uses may be considered offensive, they are clearly labelled as such. This helps our readers to understand the connotations of terms when looking them up and also acts as a lasting record of the way in which language evolves.”
But in her petition, Giovanardi disagreed, arguing a “reputable organization” like Oxford bears some responsibility in shaping online conversations.
“It’s even more worrying when you consider how much influence they have in setting norms around our language,” she says in the petition.
No mention of LGBTQ women
Giovanardi is also asking OUP to expand its definition to include minorities, like transgender or lesbian women.
In September 2019, an OUP spokesperson said its editors are looking into adding more inclusive language but it’s not clear if this will be included in the update.