Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘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.’


Pet peeves, a slight mistake, a palindrome and plus fours

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Well, the Wordwatch Towers butler is threatening to resign and claims he’s been offered a new post on what he refers to as a ‘successful grammar blog’. Says he’s bored here. Nothing to do except polish the turrets and hoover the drawbridge.

Wordsworth the butlerYes, I know, he has a point. It has been several ice ages since I posted. So, here’s a little selection from the various notes that have been scattered about on my desk for the past few months.

Pet peeves

A World Service radio presenter introduces a group of eminent writers:

I have with me today four leading women novelists.

Would this presenter (female – she should have known better) ever say:untitwsled

I have with me today four leading man novelists.

Or even ‘male novelists’? I don’t think so. Read more on this. And here’s a post on ‘women bishops’.

Words I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know until very recently

Such a lovely word too: oneiric. It’s derived from Greek and means ‘related to dreams or dreaming’. On the Oxford Dictionaries site you can hear how it’s pronounced.

Words I can’t spell and didn’t notice were palindromes

Rotavator. At first, I  spelt it ‘rotivator’ – and lots of other people (online journalists, I’m looking at you) do too.

imappgesAnyways, it’s an interesting word, meaning a bladed machine that breaks up or tills the soil. I dug about a bit (see what I did there) and found that the word was coined in the 1930s and is a combination of ‘rotary’ and ‘cultivator’. Which  makes it a portmanteau word as well as a palindrome. And in case you’re not sure what a palindrome is, it’s a word or phrase that’s spelt the same backwards as forwards.

Slight mistake

Look at this from the BBC news website:

They were sensational: speed, power and slight of hand in equal measures made them almost impossible to stop.

Can you spot the mistake? It should, of course, be ‘sleight of hand’. You’ll see this mistake absolutely everywhere. As explained in Oxford Dictionaries,  ‘sleight’ means ‘the use of dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive’.untitleddd

Plus fours – minus the hyphen

Just a little nugget I recently came across: Plus fours are so-called because of the extra four inches of material needed to drape over the knee. Note, there’s no hyphen (as in ‘plus-fours’) – although many writers insist on adding one.

And finally…

Find out from the wonderful Guy Keleny (who still refuses to marry me) whether or not the following use of ‘thrall’ is correct:

Why do the Emmys matter to Brits? Because US TV has us in its thrall.

So  – the butler has now agreed to hang around for a bit longer, the kettle is on, and all is well again at Wordwatch Towers. For now.


Written by Wordwatch

16/09/2014 at 2:10 pm

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.

Royal wedding bombshell

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Cover of

Cover of Royal Wedding

Ephraim Hardcastle, writing in the Mail newspaper, displays a rare ability to combine side-splitting Wildean wit with a genuine concern for public safety shared by all right-thinking people: 

Meanwhile, security at Friday’s royal wedding is being overseen by blonde bombshell Commander Christine Jones. Help! 

With thanks to Daisy Bennison 

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? 

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