The Oxford Dictionary of English is the default dictionary app on up-to-date Macs, iPads and iPhones. It holds, then, a small but coveted seat in the American subconscious.
It was through this digital purveyance of meaning that Canadian anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan noticed a few things that troubled him last week. In a Medium post, he summarized his concerns with one fittingly verbose question:
“Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as ‘rabid feminists’ with mysterious ‘psyches’ speaking in ‘shrill voices’ who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do ‘all the housework?'”
Oman-Reagan’s discoveries started with a dictionary search for the word “rabid,” for which the example phrase turned out to be “rabid feminist.” That led him to other terms with gendered definitions or examples, several of which he said hearkened back to arcane stereotypes about women.
To help readers understand “shrill,” the dictionary offers as an example “the rising shrill of women’s voices.” For nagging, it is “a nagging wife.” And for “promiscuous”: “she’s a wild, promiscuous, good-time girl.”
Meanwhile, male pronouns are used in explanations for the words “doctor” and “research.”
Oman-Reagan took to Twitter to confront Oxford Dictionaries. The dictionary tweeted back.
While the PhD candidate’s original tweet had already garnered a good deal of attention, the above response further stirred the pot. Oxford Dictionaries attracted support from those who accused Oman-Reagan of being overly sensitive and politically correct, while others berated the esteemed text for dismissing what they believed to be serious accusations of sexism.
Brendan O’Neill, writing for Britain’s Spectator, pointed out that Oxford Dictionaries derives its “rabid feminist” example from feminist writer Ann Oakley, who used it in her autobiography “Taking It Like a Woman.”
“Perhaps the entire staff of the school were rabid feminists,” Oakley wrote, “but if so we did not know, and we certainly weren’t.”
O’Neill accused Oman-Reagan and his supporters of being ‘intolerant” and “more interested in policing language than in changing society.”
On the other side, linguistic anthropologist Sarah Shulist took issue with the guise of impartiality that she said the dictionary had adopted in using a term with specific connotations.
“The premise is that dictionaries’ use of loaded language disguised as neutral is problematic,” she tweeted.
Oxford Dictionaries countered that its examples come from actual usage. “Our point is that ‘rabid’ isn’t necessarily a negative adjective,” it said in a subsequent tweet, “and that example sentence needn’t be negative either.”
But indeed it was, in this instance. The next day, Oxford Dictionaries tweeted an apology followed by the announcement that the primary example sentence for “rabid” is now under review.
Katherine Connor Martin, Oxford Dictionaries’ head of content creation, published a post Tuesday explaining how example sentences are chosen. As Oxford English Dictionary is a descriptive dictionary (as opposed to a prescriptive one), its mandate is to accurately reflect existing language patterns rather than advocating some usages over others.
“The best examples don’t draw attention to themselves — they are so ordinary as to be downright boring,” Martin wrote. “Dictionary examples should never include content that is likely to distract from the essential information the entry is trying to convey about how a word is used.”
“Rabid feminist” didn’t quite meet this standard.
“In more troubling cases,” Martin continued, “a poorly chosen example sentence might inadvertently repeat factually incorrect, prejudiced, or offensive statements from the source.”
She acknowledged that “rabid feminist” makes uses of “rabid” to “denigrate the noun it modifies, and the real-life sentence from which the example was taken involved someone denigrating a person described as being a feminist.”
Better alternatives would be “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan,” which “would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts” associated with “rabid feminist,” Martin wrote.
The debate didn’t end there.
Oxford Dictionaries may be backing away from its previous claim that the example phrase does not necessarily carry negative connotations, but that “flippant” tweet was not entirely wrong. While “rabid feminist” has historically been used to disparage those passionate about women’s rights, the term’s associations have changed with the changing times, as contemporary feminists have started wearing it as a badge of honor.
“I’m a rabid feminist,” “Girls” creator Lena Dunham said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times two years ago.
In 2014, multiple Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep called fellow actress Emma Thompson “a rabid man-eating feminist like me!”
Used by such pop culture figures, the term has taken on a less radical — and “rabid” — meaning. Compare this with a paragraph in Glynis Marie Breakwell’s 1986 book “The Quiet Rebel: How to Survive as a Woman & Businessperson”:
The label feminist when used as an insult carries a multitude of connotations. It reaches its fiercest when prefaced by ‘rabid’, since this conjures up the image of the infectious madness of a rabid dog.
As the “feminist” label has become less taboo, so too has its most extreme modifier been co-opted, almost always with a drop of humor and irony, by the very people who would have been attacked for being “rabid” just a few decades earlier.
A Tumblr called “The Rabid Feminist” describes itself as “a blog for enraged feminists.” A website of the same name carries the tongue-in-cheek subheader: “Yes, the kind that foams at the mouth and bites people.”
Taken out of context in a dictionary entry, however, the phrase still bears more of a negative connotation than a positive one. Blogger Nordette Adams first took Oxford Dictionaries to task for the “rabid feminist” example in a 2014 post.
“Rabid,” Adams wrote, “implies violent and angry, and it’s not as though the patriarchy hasn’t already been successful at moving the public, even many of today’s young women, to view feminist as a dirty word.”
More from Morning Mix