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A petition is calling to remove sexist synonyms for 'woman' from the dictionary

If you're a woman, you've probably been called a "bitch" at some point in your life. Unfortunately, one of the places you've been called that is the dictionary. A petition on Change.org is trying to get the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus of English to remove sexist and outdated synonyms for the word "woman." The petition, which was started by London-based communications strategist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, has already received 30,000 signatures — more than the student body of Oxford. They're trying to redefine the way we talk about women. Literally.

Some of the synonyms for "woman" are derogatory, like "bitch." Some synonyms are both archaic and derogatory, like "wench" and "bird." Some are flat out sexist, like "baggage" and "frail." Some of the other synonyms include, "chick," "biddy", "bint," "broad," "piece," and "petticoat." Interestingly, most of the positive synonyms for "woman" refer to a woman as a "sweetheart" or "paramour." It's not just the synonyms that are the problem. The examples "show women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men." Not only that,"the definition of a 'man' is much more exhaustive than that of a 'woman' — with 25 examples for men, compared to only five for women," the petition reads.


The petition says that seeing the word "bitch" as a synonym for "woman" in the dictionary opens the door for harassment. "This is completely unacceptable by a reputable source like the Oxford University Press, but it's even more worrying when you consider how much influence they have in setting norms around our language," according to the petition. Name calling is a form of bullying, and according to a Pew Research poll, four in ten Americans have said that they've experienced online harassment. "We can take a serious step towards reducing the harm this is causing our young women and girls by looking at our language and this starts with the dictionary," the petition says. Words have meaning.

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The dictionary, however, says it doesn't start with the dictionary. It starts with you and me. Katherine Martin, the head of lexical content strategy at Oxford University Press, addressed the petition in a blog post. According to Martin, the words are in the dictionary because they're in our everyday language. "If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory," she wrote. She also noted that offensive words are labeled as such.

The dictionary is open to change, but it has to come from the people first. The dictionary doesn't influence the language, the language influences the dictionary. "The relationship between the dictionary and the living language is more like a map than a set of directions; it can tell you the contours of the landscape, but not direct you on where to go or how to get there. As the usage of English speakers changes over time, the dictionary changes to reflect that new lexical terrain. The current cultural moment has seen an increasing acknowledgment of the real-life impact that words can have on individuals and groups. As this awareness leads to changes in linguistic behaviour, the dictionary will seek to record them," Martin continued.

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It doesn't sound like the dictionary is going to budge on removing "bit"or "biddy" anytime soon. But at the end of the day, it's not up to the dictionary to define who we are. Nor is it up to someone who goes around calling women "baggage" and "birds." Only we can write our own meaning. The best way to get "bitch" taken out of the dictionary is to remove it from our vocabulary altogether.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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