A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
An Example For Us All
"Where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting."
–Jane Austen, in Lady Susan
Even if you don't have an online news alert set up for the word dictionary, you may have caught wind of the recent tempest involving the exemplification of the adjective rabid with the phrase "rabid feminist" in some Oxford dictionaries, especially a dictionary that is used on smartphones. The controversy took flight with a tweet from Canadian PhD student Michael Oman-Reagan:
Oman-Reagan went on to mine the dictionary for several other examples which he deemed to be sexist, and tweeted them as well. You can read about the media storm that subsequently erupted here, in a blog post written by Mr. Oman-Reagan himself. Along with the predictable misinformed sound and fury that accompanies many Twitter storms, there has been a fair amount of thoughtful media coverage, and the link above will guide you to some of it.
A question recurring in many accounts of the phenomenon—which I would characterize generally as a charge of sexism against Oxford Dictionaries—is about how dictionary editorial staffs go about choosing examples. In all of the discussion, accusations fly in an atmosphere of complete ignorance about editorial practice that does not seem to deter the accusers from indignant finger-pointing and explosions of outrage.
In my 25 years as a lexicographer, I have been a frequent chooser of examples, an editor of examples chosen by others, and even a writer of guidelines about choosing examples for dictionaries. In all of that time I have never consciously chosen an example that I thought was sexist; I have never allowed to stand an example chosen by another that I thought was sexist; and I have never worked under, or written guidelines that would encourage the appearance of sexist examples at an entry in a dictionary.
But I would venture that every dictionary to which I have contributed has some examples in it that someone, somewhere, would find objectionable on the basis that they were sexist. How can that be? I suggest that it can be because some readers misinterpret the function of a dictionary example, and because language—certainly English language, but probably all language—is sexist: the way people use it reflects inherent or culturally-dictated gender differences that are unavoidably exemplified in language. This is a subject I have explored twice before in the Lounge, here and here, to mark Women's History Month—and now that month is upon us again.
I surveyed (from memory) two dozen dictionaries projects from the last 25 years in which I have made some contribution, with a view to a couple of statistics: how many of the projects were supervised by a males, as opposed to females? And in how many of the projects was there a noticeable gender differential in the editorial staff (i.e., significantly more males or more females). Here are the results:
Dictionary and English Language Reference Projects, 1991-2016
Projects with editorial
supervision under a male
Projects with editorial
supervision under a female
Projects with majority
male editorial staff
Projects with majority
female editorial staff
Mind that this is not a scientific survey but a survey of memory; but I think it would be corroborated by other lexicographers, or it could be corroborated by anyone who still owns a contemporary English language paper dictionary, grammar book, or encyclopedia; look in the front matter where editorial contributions are acknowledged and you will probably find more females than males, overall, in all capacities. I don't suggest a reason for this; it's just a fact, but a fact that I think argues against any charge that there could be systematic or intentional sexism in modern English language reference books. I don't think that women would implement it, or stand for it.
Those who would find fault with the selection of examples in dictionaries seem to imagine lexicographers with an agenda of actually choosing examples that reinforce stereotypes or cast aspersions. This is very far from the truth. Lexicographers work under the pressure of tight deadlines and often, of productivity quotas. For a given dictionary entry, they spend the majority of their time studying dozens, if not hundreds of examples of usage, and then carefully picking apart the division of senses and crafting definitions according to exacting guidelines.
By the time this task is finished, the selection of a good example is not a ponderous task: the definition is the workhorse of the entry; the example merely complements it or illuminates it. The main objective is to find an example that is as representative as possible of usage. And a great deal of English language usage is, in the eyes of just about anyone who cares to look, sexist. If a lexicographer is doing her job, some examples she picks will suggest that there exist very divergent roles and characteristics associated with men and women.
Language, in the aggregate, is a reflection of the people who use it. It is the medium, it is not the message. If some statistically isolatable fraction of language is deemed sexist, racist, nationalistic, Chauvinist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or in some other way reflective of undesirable values, that is not an indictment of the language itself; it's simply an indication of the values of the people who use the language. Should language reference books reflect such biases accurately? That depends on what you think learners or students need to know about a language.
If the aim is simply to convey, in barest form, what words mean, then by all means: sanitize all examples, let no cultural value or prejudice show through, and let the dictionary stand as a repository of the sorts of things we would say if we weren't all so riddled with imperfections. But if the aim is to convey not only what words mean but also how people use them, then why not exemplify words with statistically meaningful examples so that users get a more robust picture of the living language and the people who speak it? The conversation about what dire things such examples may signify should not be suppressed, but it should also not influence the way that dictionaries are designed to represent a living language.