Thousands sign petition for Oxford dictionaries to remove 'sexist', 'discriminatory' definitions

Maria Giovanardi
Maria Beatrice Giovanardi started the petition three months ago. Photo credit: Maria Giovanardi / Change.org

Almost 30,000 people have signed a petition campaigning for Oxford University Press (OUP) to reword its "sexist" definitions of the word 'woman' in some of its dictionaries.

Maria Beatrice Giovanardi started the petition three months ago after noticing some Oxford dictionaries contained derogatory synonyms for 'woman', including "b*tch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy [and] filly".

"These are the words which the [dictionary] online tells us mean the same as 'woman'. This sexist dictionary must change," Giovanardi wrote on her Change.org petition. 

"This is completely unacceptable by a reputable source like the Oxford University Press."

Giovanardi also called out the misogynistic examples used to help define the word 'woman', including:

  • "Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman."
  • "If that does not work, they can become women of the streets."
  • "Male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut."
  • "I told you to be home when I get home, little woman".

"These examples show women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men," Giovanardi wrote.

She also draws attention to the far more extensive definition of the word 'man', with 25 examples compared to only five examples for women.

The petition asks OUP to remove all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women, including those that connote male ownership. It also requests a more complex definition and the inclusion of minority representation, such as "a lesbian woman".

In a statement to the Guardian, Oxford University Press' head of content strategy Katherine Connor Martin said the content outlined in the petition came from the Oxford Thesaurus of English and the Oxford Dictionary of English, not its academic Oxford English Dictionary.

"[The former] are drawn from 'real-life use' of language... if there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory," Martin told the Guardian.

Martin pointed out that the publications do make it clear when words are offensive, saying the use of "bit" as a synonym is accompanied by a "derogatory" label.

She did note that the points raised by the petition are being taken "very seriously", and its dictionaries are updated to reflect "changes in linguistic behaviour".

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