Efforts Now Underway to Make the Oxford Dictionary Less Sexist, Ancient

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It’s been some time since I looked up the word “woman” in the Oxford Dictionary of English, but it seems like it’s best I stay away. According to a new open letter,, the Guardian reports, the definition includes the word “bitch” as a synonym, which....not great!

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Nearly 32,000 people have signed a petition, first launched by London resident Maria Beatrice Giovanardi last, asking the Oxford Dictionary to update some of the synonyms included in its definition of “woman,” a number of which seem to herald back to era in which women wore bone-breaking corsets and men were extras in a Guy Ritchie period piece. These synonyms include: bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, and filly. Several of these are also words to describe “horse.”

The dictionary’s sentence examples seem similarly, uh, outdated:

‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’;

‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets’;

‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’;

‘I told you to be home when I get home, little woman’.

Now, the leaders of Women’s Aid and the Women’s Equality party have written an open letter to the Oxford University Press asking for a rewrite. “Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch,” the letter reads. “It is but one sad, albeit extremely damaging, example of everyday sexism. And that should be explained clearly in the dictionary entry used to describe us.”

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What’s wild to me isn’t just that the definitions are sexist, it’s that they’re like 600 years old. Imagine if the Oxford Dictionary still described a “computer” as a “500-pound hybrid integrated circuit used to power moon rockets.” Which, in fairness, they might, since I haven’t checked in in some time—Merriam Webster is, after all, the modern person’s dictionary of choice.

Correction: A previous version of this post referred to the dictionary in question as the Oxford English Dictionary. The petition actually calls for the change to be made in the Oxford Dictionary of English.

Night blogger, author of GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE YOU HATE.

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The OED is intended as a historical reference to track how words have been used, not solely what they mean today. It’s exceedingly valuable to anyone studying English linguistics or older literature.