Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Posts Tagged ‘am I allowed to say that?

Rabid sexism… Oxford Dictionaries says sorry

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untitledODFlippant? Oxford Dictionaries? Who said so? Oh, Oxford Dictionaries.

Just for the record, here’s Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of ‘flippant’:

 ‘Not showing a serious or respectful attitude’

And here’s why (as reported in the Guardian today) Oxford Dictionaries fessed up to such undictionary-like behaviour:

A Canadian anthropologist, Michael Oman-Reagan, tweeted Oxford Dictionaries last week to ask it why “rabid feminist” is its usage example for the word “rabid”. Oxford Dictionaries responded by suggesting Oman-Regan may be a rabid feminist. It has since apologised for the “flippant” response and is reviewing the example sentence.

Here is the definition of ‘rabid’ Michael was referring to (reproduced below in case it’s – hopefully – taken down in the near future):

‘Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist’

untitledrabidOh dear. And good.

Wordwatch Towers has previously pointed out examples of sexism within the (virtual) pages of Oxford Dictionaries and we’re (me, the butler, and my reader, Gladys) are glad to see this being given a prominent airing over the Interwebs.

Since this – um – discussion surfaced on Twitter, Oxford Dictionaries has published an article about how it chooses examples of word use. It has humbly eaten humble pie and is to be commended. Brace yourself, the key paragraph rambles on a bit, but the upshot is that Michael has been vindicated:

‘In the case of an example which has recently received much attention, of the phrase “rabid feminist” to exemplify the sense of rabid meaning ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’, the example is an accurate representation of the meaning of the word: rabid is used in this way 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. However, it was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning. A more generic example, like “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan”, would also have been supported by evidence on our corpora, and would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts.’*

Go, Michael.

*Just in case you’re interested in a plain language version of this explanation, here you go:

‘We used a sexist example to explain the word ‘rabid’. Sorry. We’ll put that right now.’


As annoying as someone with a clinically diagnosed condition

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English: Portrait of Georges Gilles de la Tour...

Image via Wikipedia

He just annoys me, I don’t really hate anyone in life.

But I’m very bad, in the House of Commons, at not getting distracted, and the endless, ceaseless banter, it’s like having someone with Tourette’s permanently sitting opposite you. I’ve got to learn to tune it out.

That was the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, speaking to the Sunday Telegraph about the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. Tourette syndrome (or Tourette’s syndrome) is an inherited neurological condition.

The jibe is all the more surprising because Cameron’s own son, who died at the age of six in 2009, had severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

Would Cameron ever say, “It’s like having someone with epilepsy and cerebral palsy permanently sitting opposite you”? I think not.

Downing Street later issued an apology saying that the remark was ‘off the cuff’. Oh, that’s OK then. And during an interview on BBC TV, Cameron again apologised and said: “It’s a lesson for me that, in the Commons, I have to try to tune out the noise and try to concentrate on trying to answer the question.”

 Well, that’s a good lesson, but here’s a better, more apposite, one for him:

To find out if it’s OK to use a particular word or phrase in a particular context, it’s a good idea to substitute something comparable to check it out, as in ‘epilepsy’ and ‘cerebral palsy’ in Cameron’s remark above. How about ‘Down’s syndrome’? Er, no. ‘Learning difficulties’? Nope. ‘Tourette’s’? That would be no again, then.

Clinical terminology should not be hijacked to use as a term of abuse and Mr Cameron should not provide unthinking prime ministerial endorsement of such use.

Red herrings

Public reaction has been interesting. Comments have included the assertion that Cameron was insulting Balls, not people with Tourette syndrome. But this ignores the egregious fact that we are automatically expected to equate clinical conditions with abusive insults (a special Wordwatch award to anyone who can provide an example of a clinical term being hijacked to express praise or appreciation).

Others have expressed the usual ‘this is political correctness gone mad’ argument in response to criticism of Cameron’s remark. A lovely catch-all rebuttal which attracts much vigorous nodding and saves the bother of having to explain why it’s OK to insult someone by comparing them to a person who has an inherited neurological condition.

One or two people with the syndrome have stated that they are not offended. Good. But that doesn’t negate my arguments above.

Words are tools. They should be used, especially by people in public life, to help demolish our knee-jerk association of disability with negativity, not reinforce it.

You can find out more about Tourette syndrome on the Tourettes Action website.

 A schizophrenic attitude?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

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No sexism racism homophobia

No sexism racism homophobia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it only me who’s finding the Mail’s coverage of this story (see previous post below) about sexism among highly paid sports commentators (knock me down with a feather) more interesting than the story itself? And definitely funnier.

Following on from the ludicrous ‘female linesman’ label, the paper blithely continues its ‘pot calling the kettle black’ schtick with the following headline gems:

Off duty: Girl ref in sexism storm
(Just reverse that for a second: Boy ref in sexism storm)

And, in even bigger point size on page 6:

The lady ref and another own goal by soccer sexist Andy
(And reverse: The gentleman ref and another own goal…)

Oh, and finally, a picture caption for you on the same page:

Linesman Sian Massey

Girl? Man? Lady? Never let it be said that the Mail does not have an open mind and isn’t keen to embrace all options.

Sorting the girls from the women

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

When is a man not a man?

Sexism and eggs

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Seven eggs being fried (sunny side up) in a fr...
Image via Wikipedia

In a recent post about similes and metaphors I used the word ‘garrulous’.

The definition of ‘garrulous’ in the Oxford Dictionary of English is to ‘talk excessively, especially on trivial matters’. It includes this example of its use:

A garrulous woman who liked to chat about eggs

Naturally, it’s a woman doing the excessive talking. But, er, eggs? Is that the best they could come up with? Why not shoes? Or shopping? Or macroeconomics? Oh no, scrap that last one; we are, after all, talking about Mrs G.


Find out more about the sexism tucked away in various nooks and crannies in the Oxford Dictionary of English.

Chickens and Latin

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