When congressman Ted Yoho called congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a bitch, she said his words did not pierce her. She worked in restaurants. She walked the streets of New York.
I know a woman who at 19, wore baggy hoodies over business casual dresses in 30-degree weather to wait for the bus. She was trying to avoid uninvited attention from men before she even had the chance to clock into work. Despite her efforts, men still yelled “bitch” and “slut” as they drove by.
Now, what do AOC and this young lady have in common? They are both women, making them targets of abusive language – whether they are commuting, earning money, or representing their congressional district. We can blame the entertainment industry, the media, or tell ourselves that this has always been the case, but the fact is that women are consistently subjected to offensive names. But where does it come from?
For starters, when you Google “woman”, the synonyms “piece”, “baggage”, and “bitch” appear. What may seem like nothing more than examples of what we call women, actually points to an issue of how we teach others to perceive them. What can be said for a culture making women synonymous with property, an accessory to men, or unpleasant? I believe it creates an environment where misogyny thrives.
And if it’s happening to influential politicians like AOC on the steps of the Capitol, it is happening to every woman.
What makes the dictionary’s contribution different than music, film, or television, is that we cannot point fingers and write think pieces on empowered women accused of being bad role models or how men marginalize them. The dictionary’s sole purpose is to educate. There is no creative expression in question. The dictionary defines, teaches, and tells us what a woman is and how the world sees her. My worry is that these negative associations, unchecked, can directly influence how we actually treat women.
This September will be the one-year anniversary of Maria Beatrice Giovanardi launching a petition requesting Oxford Dictionary remove the misogynistic synonyms they define under woman. Google is one of the Oxford Language-powered search engines. Similarly, in Lexico, powered by Oxford, example sentences for “daft woman” fall under the category specified for “disrespectful form of address.” This is also found in the premium version of the Oxford Dictionary.
Oxford University Press dictionaries “reflect, rather than dictate, how language is used,” according to a pre-written comment from an unnamed spokesperson. While they label these words as offensive, Oxford says their editorial approach publishes based on evidence of how people use English daily. “Our dictionaries provide an accurate representation of language, even where it means recording senses and example uses of words that are offensive or derogatory, and which we wouldn’t necessarily employ ourselves,” the comment reads, supplied by Ella Percival, Oxford’s Interim Head of Communications.
Interestingly enough, Google and Lexico do not extend this method to words associated with men. Nor are there examples of how to disrespectfully address them. Unless of course, it isn’t about how everyone sees men and women.
Percival wrote that, “any discrepancy between the representation of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is a reflection of how language is used in day-to-day life.” If the conversations I have with my female friends are any indication of a larger consensus, there are plenty disrespectful forms of address for men that have conveniently been forgotten. Instead, a male-centric lens is identifying and enforcing how women are portrayed, and packaging it as a truth universally acknowledged.
“The fact that there is so much resistance actually proves it’s obvious how blatantly misogynistic this is” says Giovanardi. “There’s so much judgement imposed on this definition.”
What is stopping the dictionary from defining bitch this way? By Oxford standards, it would appropriately reflect society because the person seeking the offensive term would learn of its derogatory use against women. Instead, someone simply seeking “women” now links her to unprovoked insults.
Now, I don’t think Oxford’s decision to associate such words with women makes them a villain. Admittedly, I have to train myself not to call a woman a bitch if we get in a heated argument. Framing women in a negative light is pretty much engrained in us. The problem arrives with how Oxford – and naysayers – responds to the concern.
As of September, Giovanardi’s petition has gathered over 34,000 signatures. According to Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, Oxford has postponed meetings to address the petitions’ proposals – one of which Percival attributes to remote work transitions during COVID-19. Oxford has commented in news publications that they now flag these words as derogatory or offensive in the dictionary. This still fails to address the main issue of associating misogynistic words with the definition of woman. Meanwhile, Giovanardi says she has received rape threats online since launching the petition.
Yes, women face bigger problems in the world. The dictionary is not going to stop genital mutilation, child brides, or inadequate access to education. But isn't the crux of misogyny seeing women as lesser than their male counterparts? If we’re going to start somewhere, let it be changing the way we think about women before we harm them.
Written by Sherlyn Assam