Guess what's sexist now–the dictionary!

According to the U.K. Guardian, the Oxford Dictionary of English is under attack for its supposedly misogynist "usage examples": quotations that explain how a particular word is actually employed by speakers or writers.

The dictionary publisher, part of Oxford University Press, was taken to task by the Canadian anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan, after he noticed that the word “rabid”, defined by the dictionary as “having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something”, used the example phrase “rabid feminist”. Oman-Reagan tweeted about it to the publisher, suggesting they change it.

Oman-Reagan, who is doing a PhD at the at Memorial University of Newfoundland, also highlighted other “explicitly sexist usage examples” in the dictionary; including “shrill” – defined as “the rising shrill of women’s voices”– and “psyche” – for which the example sentence is, “I will never really fathom the female psyche”. “Grating”, defined as “sounding harsh and unpleasant”, was illustrated with the phrase “her high, grating voice”, while the adjective “nagging” used the example phrase “a nagging wife”.

An example sentence given for “housework” was “she still does all the housework”, while a sentence using the word “research” was illustrated with the sentence “he prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches”.

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’?” wrote the academic on Medium. “As the Oxford Dictionary says in the usage example for ‘sexism’: ‘sexism in language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees women’. Shouldn’t the usage examples in this dictionary reflect that understanding of sexism in language?”

Buzzfeed uncovered further gendered definitions, with usage for the word “nurse” including “he was gradually nursed back to health”, and “she nursed at the hospital for 30 years”, while examples of usage for doctor all used the male pronoun.

The Oxford Press at first seemed to regard Oman-Reagan as a typical SJW humorless pest, tweeting back such flippancies as: "If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism…." But soon enough other feminists got into the act, accusing Oxford of reinforcing sexist stereotypes. "@OxfordWords are you seriously claiming the word 'rabid', with origins in madness & violence, 'isn’t necessarily' negative?," one tweet read.

So Oxford quickly backtracked:

In a statement on Monday, a spokesperson for OUP added that the Twitter comments had been “ill-judged”.

“We apologise for the offence that these comments caused,” said the statement. “The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press. That said, we are now reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage.”

The OUP spokesperson added that the publisher reviews “all of our example sentences to ensure they reflect current usage on an ongoing basis”, and would also be reviewing the other examples raised by Oman-Reagan.

What's funny about this food-fight is that the Oxford Dictionary of English (a Webster's for hipsters not to be confused with the venerable etymology-based Oxford English Dictionary) prides itself on "focusing on English as it is used today," as its web page states. Thus, all those usage examples that Oman-Reagan's brigade found so misogynistic come from actual quotations by people using the words in real life.

But nowadays you can't point out that a lot of people have negative opinions about feminists–or that the vast majority of nurses are female or that wives can nag. Even when you're quoting someone else.