"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

9

Projects with editorial
supervision under a female

12

Projects with majority
male editorial staff

0

Projects with majority
female editorial staff

8

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.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 1st 2016, 12:25 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
This issue conflates with a widespread tendency to think of dictionaries not as recorders of the language, but as of arbiters of it, not to reflect language but to lead it.

It certainly seems like it could be a conundrum as to how to reflect how people use the language without somehow seeming to be endorsing language generally considered negative. If there are collocations that seem to be (e.g.) sexist, does the dictionary need to reflect this predominant usage pattern? Dilemma.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 3:46 AM
Comment by: Chris W. (Rozelle Australia)
Orin

As a speaker of at least three (possibly four) English languages (English, Canadian, American and Australian - of which I have passports for three!), I couldn't agree with you more. And I question Michael Oman-Reagan's pot-stirring.

The dictionary(ies) is not an arbiter, it's a reflection of the language as of today. Why else would they hire guides like you to advise on the contemporaneousness of the lexicon?

As a fellow Canadian, Michael, relax. It's just a contextual example.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 5:59 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Of course a feminist - whether rabid or otherwise - may be female or male. I don't see, therefore, how 'feminist' can be a sexist word. Nor can I see what hydrophobia has to do with anything relevant!

But I'm an Englishman; whose language is it, anyway?
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 6:43 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
First, a comment to Geoffrey BH. "Whose language is it, anyway?" Think of Latin, which was used by how many Romans in classical times, versus how many Europeans and people of other continents in the next two millennia? Used as an international language, or the language of science (badly, as referring to science, I admit). But the number of Latin users since classical Rome swamps the numbers of Latin users in the time of the Caesars. And so it is with English and England.

Secondly, to Orin Hargraves. I am a great admirer of yours, but in this case I can say only that your blithe discussion stung like a mosquito, no matter what your graphs and statistics say. The terms 'rabid feminist' or the word 'strident' - which is used in almost no other context - have been like a tin can tied to my tail for half a century. Think of the 'n' word and be kind.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 6:50 AM
Comment by: Darlene J.
I find this piece to be naive in terms of the engagement with the use of examples that are defamatory. We know rabid is a negative term referencing extremely irrational behaviour and once the disease has set in there is no cure and the animal must be shot. This understanding of the term is always present and so the example taps into this negativity. As for choice of example being neutral and unmotivated - I'd have to disagree. Everyone single person who works on a dictionary have been shaped by the ideologies of their social contexts.

I find the example insulting, much as I would if the example for watermelon was "Black folks love watermelon." "Rabid feminist" as an example is a a sneaky and underhanded way to insult folks who take the position of feminist.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 8:58 AM
Comment by: chris . (liverpool United Kingdom)
As another British subject (Welsh) I can only agree with Roberta A. English is an international language with many older roots. The term Welsh is Saxon, for example.The use of rabid feminist in the dictionary comes from a different route. The one of opinion not lexicography.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
There are rabid feminists and rabid chauvinists. All feminists are not rabid nor are all chauvinists rabid. Rabid to me means extremely demented and dangerous. Some skunks are rabid and for your own health you had better avoid them. They stink and are unpleasant to be around. But if you have trouble with mice in the feed bin, a skunk can be your best friend.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 1:01 PM
Comment by: Lyn A. (OR)
The bottom line -- "examples" are just that -- examples of usage; not necessarily a comment on any aspect of life. As a woman, I understand what the term "rabid feminist" means. To me it describes an extremist attitude -- and is a strong and expressive term. I also know about rabies -- and rabid dogs and other creatures. Rabies is a terrible and ugly disease. So calling someone a "rabid dog" would also express a strong opinion of a person.
We would have to omit half a dictionary if we considered examples to be comments! I notice when I am editing or grading papers that many people don't know the difference between "i.e." and "e.g.". This could also account for some of the dissent.
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
The Nordette Adams article that Oman-Reagan draws from has many salient points, including this one:

"Whenever we craft information for consumption, we inject our subjectivity."

This is true whether we are male or female or of one nationality or another, etc. The person who most objected to the use of my husband's hyphenated name, and in fact refused to change it on his paychecks in spite of his driver's license, was a woman. The person who questioned how my hyphenated name could be preceded by Ms. since I was clearly married (voting right after my husband) was a woman. Noting that the preponderance of female editors and lexicographers seems to imply that their approach would ensure no sexism was included. Oh, if only.

I appreciate Mr. Hargraves' personal stance against sexist examples but I disagree that "the main objective is to find an example that is as representative as possible of usage." That would presumably include sexist, offensive examples that dictionaries can leave out in favour of more neutral but still common usage.

The Urban Dictionary is still where one can go to find a certain completely unedited version of language usage, as least according to those who submit entries. There you can find the baldest, baddest, frankest expressions of the English language that include many offensive, sexist usages alongside funny or inventive ones. Adams is right to object to these particular Oxford entries being promoted as the "received wisdom" born up on your phone or tablet. Imagine if the Urban Dictionary were their standard bearer. After all, it reflects "representative usage"...
Tuesday March 1st 2016, 9:55 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Orin, I would like to see a graph of the rabid's usage at the time the entry was written.

I tried to think of another example that might convey the the same meaning as succinctly and I like the rest of the rabble responding don't have a good substitution.

I wonder if my inability is because rabid and feminist are/were the most common usage: rabid economist, rabid politician, rabid hairdresser, rabid gambler, all seem to fall short. Using an animal with rabid points to illness. Which completely misses the energy part of rabid in this context.

To all, we are not professionals. The object of the post was to point out the professional objective is to convey the meaning of a word not to spare the feeling of dilettantes the world over.

Mike
Wednesday March 2nd 2016, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate that they were written with the same sincerity as my column was, and I certainly didn’t mean to cause further offense.

I am most consonant with the first and last comments, from the two Mikes. I agree with Seattle Mike that there is a dilemma here with no easy solution, and San Diego Mike has, I think, understood the main motive behind the post: to convey the view of the lexicographer, which has been largely ignored in all the noise. What should we do with words like fundamentalist and extremist, for example? Nearly all of the words most typically found in collocation with them denote members of religious groups. Should lexicographers just skip past the Islamic/Mormon/Christian/Hindu/Jewish fundamentalists in order to avoid offense and illustrate the word with something anodyne but unrepresentative like "market fundamentalist"? This is not helpful for the language learner. Yes, "Whenever we craft information for consumption, we inject our subjectivity." That’s an excellent point—but the subjectivity should strive to be largely representative of norms, however faulty they may be, and not be driven by an agenda of trying to avoid sensitivities.
Wednesday March 2nd 2016, 10:33 PM
Comment by: Brian S. (Waterford, CT)
I think that you were very indulgent,patient, and kind to someone who should be worrying about something a bit more important.
Wednesday March 9th 2016, 1:50 AM
Comment by: Craig J.
The example "rabid sports fan" would have been safer to use, and serves to make the point: the word rabid in these application has not much to do with hydrophobia and everything to do with an excess of zeal. And if you don't think feminists capable of an excess of zeal then you aren't paying attention.
Thursday March 10th 2016, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
You accept 'rabid feminist' as being simply an example of usage. You do not find Brian S. ad hominum (feminum?) comment inappropriate.

Cancel me, please. I'm out of here.
Thursday March 10th 2016, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Christie C.
And so we have the blandification of language in the interests of political correctness. What a sterile world that would be...

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