When Canadian anthropologist and Ph.D candidate Michael Oman-Reagan spotted sexist themes in example sentences in the Oxford Dictionary of English, he took to Twitter to point out some of the most glaring examples, including “rabid feminist.” The viral response has Oxford reconsidering some of its definitions.
Oxford is the default dictionary on Apple’s Mac OS X operation system. This means that anyone using a Mac, IPad, or IPhone would automatically get the sexist definitions from their device.
In a Medium post, Oman-Reagan detailed the examples:
Some other definitions with their sexist samples sentences that Oman-Reagan highlighted:
- Shrill: The rising shrill of women’s voices.
- Psyche: I will never really fathom the female psyche.
- Grating: Her high, grating voice.
In his post, Oman-Reagan explains:
“We might ask Oxford: Why do you choose to use gendered examples for words that are not about gender like nagging, grating, housework, doctor, rabid, etc?”
“When Oxford editorially selects example sentences reproducing sexist stereotypes, they are making implicit, prescriptive statements about gender and language. If Oxford believes it is important to tell users that the word “shrill” has historically been applied primarily to women’s voices, they should say that clearly, not cover it up and hide it in a usage example. There are examples of Oxford doing this explicitly with other words, like “sexism” where they say “typically against women.”
While Oxford Dictionaries initially responded rather sarcastically to Oman-Reagan on Friday, they apologized on Saturday after “rabid” became the most searched term on their website.
Oxford Dictionaries penned a blog post explaining that dictionary examples are often sourced from vast databases of text. They explained that the sample of “rabid” was not good because it denigrated, instead of supported, the noun in the example. No word yet on the other sexist examples pointed out by Oman-Reagan.
“Often, a real-world example beautifully captures a particular nuance of meaning or usage but involves distractingly peculiar or perplexing details” the blog post reads. “In more troubling cases, a poorly chosen example sentence might inadvertently repeats factually incorrect, prejudiced, or offensive statements from the source.”
This is yet another example of the power of social media for enacting social change.