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Female Representation


I recently noticed that women are largely misrepresented in dictionary and that many definitions and synonym perpetuate many of the societal issues we face today around gender norms.

I've captured a couple examples below, but would love to kick off a full audit of how females are represented in the Oxford Dictionary. As I am sure this community is acutely aware, language is an incredibly powerful tool used to influence how people view the world. As the President of BBDO said in their recent "It's time to redefine" campaign, "Words have the power to determine how people feel about themselves and, ultimately, what they believe they are capable of. To achieve women's equality, a great place to start is by choosing words that accurately and positively reflect woman."

Can I please have help to do this?

1. 'Womanly' (voluptuous, shapely, etc.) vs. 'manly' (brave, courageous, bold, etc.) synonyms/definitions
2. 'Manly' being listed as a synonym for 'powerful'
3. 'Woman' being defined as "A female who is paid to clean someone's house and carry out other domestic duties."


  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited October 2018

    Dictionaries merely report how people use words.

    By all means change society, and change how people use words after you've achieved this.

    Meanwhile, please don't shoot the messenger.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited October 2018

    Hi @sgreenfield8
    I love the point you raised and I absolutely agree with you that the way words are used to describe women needs to be more positive.
    However, as @DavidCrosbie rightly pointed out, the dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive.
    New words or senses are included when there is evidence that society is using them.

    And if you do know of any new words or new uses for existing words that are already reflecting a change in the way society views women, do make a suggestion for their inclusion by using this link for submitting suggestions to the OED.
    But as I mentioned above there would have to be sufficient evidence for a particular word or sense for it to be considered for inclusion.

    I hope the clarification is helpful! :)

  • Hi Simone, I appreciate the response. What is the process for selecting definitions that are "descriptive" of society? Curious to know who is using ‘woman' interchangeably with "A female who is paid to clean someone's house and carry out other domestic duties.”

    I completed the submissions link last week.

  • The OED, which feeds directly or indirectly into popular dictionaries handles woman under a dozen headings. Here's number 4

     4. Frequently with preceding possessive adjective. A female slave or servant; a maid; esp. a lady's maid or personal attendant (now chiefly hist.). In later use more generally: a female employee; esp. a woman who is employed to do domestic work.
    char-, daily, hired, kitchen-, lady's, servant, shop-, tire-, washerwoman, etc.: see the first element.

    This is supported by exemplifying quotations starting from Old English, where the form wifman is used to translate Latin ancilla (in Modern English translated as 'maid' or 'slave-girl'). The modern sense emerges in this1886 quotation

    For thirty years ... not even admitting a woman to clean up.

    The other modern quotations are

    (1972) Valerie asked him to stay to dinner. Her woman, a retiring body Martin hadn't seen yet, was getting it ready.
    (2009) Through the program.., he gets..the services of a woman who comes by three times a week to give him baths.

    A rather different dictionary, which selects only the most frequently used words and their most frequent meanings — objectively elected by computer analysis of huge databases of text — is Collins COBUILD Dictionary for learners of English. They list seven senses for the bare word, plus five sense for phrases such as woman to woman. Their seventh sense is

    7 A woman is also 7.1 a woman who works for or represents a particular company or organisation EG The publicity woman had planned to take me there are show me around 7.2 a female worker EG You may be able to employ a woman to do the washing for you

    This is by no means to say that woman is used interchangeably with 'a female who is paid to clean someone's house and carry out other domestic duties'. If someone says 'A woman comes in', it only conveys the meaning if it's already implicit in the conversation.

    Most people use a dictionary to check their spelling. No English speaker would use a dictionary to look up the meaning in a sentence like 'I saw a woman in the room'. But a foreigner might use a dictionary to understand for example 'The flat's in a mess because the woman doesn't come till Friday'.

  • I disagree with the assertion made by you and BBDO NY. The word woman is appropriately defined as it is.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited October 2018

    Hi @sgreenfield8
    Oh, I'm glad you submitted a suggestion, the editors are always happy to get them :)

    When I said 'descriptive', I just meant that the dictionary describes the way people use words, by collecting evidence of their use.
    This is opposed to 'prescriptive' meaning that the editors don't invent new words or new senses for people to use.

    So the process involves collecting evidence for a particular word over a period of time, from multiple sources - have a look at this infographic which brings a little more information about this process.
    You might also want to have a look at some of the frequent questions we get, as the answers to those help clarify the matter too.

    I hope you find the links useful, @sgreenfield8, and thanks again for sending us your suggestions!

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