Oxford English Dictionary updates 'sexist' definition of the word 'woman' following petition

Elena Sheppard
·3 min read
The update to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "woman" came after a Change.org petition demanded it. (Photo: Getty)
The update to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "woman" came after a Change.org petition demanded it. (Photo: Getty)

The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its definition of the word “woman.” A spokesperson for Oxford University Press told the Guardian that the change came after an “extensive review” that looked at entries “for ‘woman’ and many other related terms.”

The change came after a Change.org petition — made by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, a 28-year-old London-based communications and marketing expert — went viral. Giovanardi had simply searched online for a definition of “woman” and found that synonyms in the Oxford English Dictionary included “bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly.”

Giovanardi also discovered that the dictionary gave sexist example sentences for the word “woman” in use, including: “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman.” And, “Ms. September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman.” As Giovanardi wrote in her petition, “These examples show women as sex objects, subordinate and/or an irritation to men.”

“This sexist dictionary must change,” Giovanardi added. Over 34,000 people who signed her petition agreed, and the Oxford University Press listened.

A spokesperson for Oxford University Press told the Guardian that their dictionaries “reflect, rather than dictate, how language is used. This is driven solely by evidence of how real people use English in their daily lives.

“This independent editorial approach means that our dictionaries provide an accurate representation of language, even where it means recording senses and example uses of words that are offensive or derogatory, and which we wouldn’t necessarily employ ourselves.”

This seems to be the explanation for why words like “bitch” remain as a synonym in the revised dictionary, even if the term is now labeled as “offensive.” Another revision in the dictionaries sees “woman” now identified as a “person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover,” rather than only the wife, girlfriend or lover of a man.

Giovanardi told British newspaper the Independent that she was “85 percent happy” with the new definition. She added that she found the definition “still 15 percent sexist,” but that “it’s a big big improvement and a big win for the LGBT community which I think is a huge thing, that they acknowledge other sorts of love, and it’s not a man’s wife or woman’s wife, it’s a person’s wife.”

The Oxford English Dictionary is not the only dictionary to face a language reckoning. Earlier this year, Dictionary.com said they were making 15,000 revisions and 650 new entries that included the capitalization of Black as it relates to a person, and making LGBTQ language less clinical.

Related video: New Oxford English Dictionary Entries for 2019

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