Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘Avoiding sexist language

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.’


The brain of a pea … hen

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Peacock in Portugal

A peacock. Not prone to distraction. Obviously.

This morning, a story about peahens made me angry. (Did I just write that?) Or rather, the reporting of it did. It was the BBC, too. Shame on them.

You know that thing – how descriptions and interpretations can differ, depending on whether the person being referred to is female or male?

If you missed that meeting, catch up here:

Trilling and shrieking
Excitable and bubbly

Anyways, I was half-listening to the BBC’s flagship news programme on the radio this morning when a ‘scientists have found’ story came on. Apparently, according to the BBC, ‘scientists have found’ that peahens are ‘prone to distraction and easily lose attention’.


That noise is an alarm going off. The Wordwatch Towers butler just checked and has confirmed it’s the ‘women being undermined via descriptions of the animal kingdom to avoid accusations of blatant sexism’ alarm. Thought so.

I checked. In fact, the scientific study has found – no surprise – that the female of the species in Peacock World, the maligned peahen, is actually a multi-tasker: Dr Jessica Yorzinski explains (on the BBC’s news website, ironically) that peahens have to stay alert, shifting their focus between potential mates and their immediate surroundings to avoid being eaten by a predator. The exact opposite of being prone to distraction and easily losing attention, I would have thought. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a cheap (sexist) jibe?

I’m willing to bet an extensive amount of chocolate, two wildlife DVDs that I’ve never watched, and my ticket to see Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse (this Saturday: very excited), that similar findings about peacocks would not have been deliberately misinterpreted in this way.

You might also like: The female of the species.


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A variety of tools made of mussel shells. U.S....

Sometimes I get quite hopeful. The way we use language does slowly change to become more inclusive.

An archaeological excavation of a Norfolk beach here in the UK has uncovered over 70 flint tools thought to be up to one million years old. This resulted in much discussion about our early ancestors, traditionally referred to as ‘prehistoric man’ or similar.

Full marks to both the Telegraph and Guardian newspapers which both used a variety of inclusive terms such as ‘ancient Britons’; ‘early humans’; ‘our ancestors’; and (revolutionary) ‘people’.

The Independent also did well, but its interviewee, Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, let the side down a bit when he referred to ‘man-made tools’. An excellent and inclusive alternative there is ‘handmade’.

The Mail started off with good intentions, but soon got tired of all the effort and reverted to ‘Norfolk man’. It also suggested that ‘he was rather like us’. Not so much like me, I’m guessing. And up pops Prof Stringer again to say ‘this was no apeman’. No, nor woman neither. Body hair may also, apparently, have helped to keep ‘him’ warm. I expect his missus was a bit too busy with her depilatory preparations to worry too much about the temperature.

Sarah Montague, the only female presenter on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, twice referred to ‘early man’ in relation to this story. I’ve always wondered: if our ancient ancestors were all men, how come we’re still here?


Here is an excellent example of a newspaper article demonstrating careful use of gender-neutral language. (To nitpick, the term ‘craftsmen’ creeps in, but apart from that, ten out of ten.) Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?

The abominable spokesperson

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English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper.

I had to laugh as I read the following stricture in myFinancial Times Style Guide:

‘Spokesman’ and ‘spokeswoman’ are best avoided, ‘spokesperson’ is abominable.

Abominable? Meaning, says the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE), ‘causing moral revulsion’. Really? That’s what the word ‘spokesperson’ does? To whom?

‘Spokesperson’ is defined in the ODE as ‘a neutral alternative to spokesman or spokeswoman’. No mention is made of the extent to which the word may or may not cause moral revulsion.

The Financial Times Style Guide ends its homily with the following:

If you can name a spokesman, do so.

What, even if he’s a woman?

And I’ve just read this in The New York Times‘ regular analysis of its own use of the English language:

We should avoid “spokesperson.”

I did some research in an effort to find out why the New York Times believes ‘spokesperson’ should be avoided, but failed. Perhaps, in this case, because the ‘spokesperson’ is obviously a woman? Doesn’t the paper approve of ‘spokeswoman’ either? I tried to find out, but have so far failed (the paper’s style guide is not available online).

Read Motivated Grammar‘s great post on this topic.

She’s so intolerant but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Trilling and shrieking

Top scientist or top female scientist?

Gratuitous modifiers — or the lady bus driver

Excitable and bubbly

Am I allowed to say that?

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