Oh, it’s just words (not)

Dear President Trump,

When one’s community is in the midst of a crisis, whether of the immediately obvious variety like the covid-19 situation or of the drip, drip, drip variety that is climate change (at least here – elsewhere it’s far more in people’s faces), it probably seems like a bad time to zero in on sexist language. However, in between countless repetitions of the “Happy Birthday” song to pass the hand washing time and setting up Zoom meetings to avoid unnecessary in-person contacts, I think it does make sense to look at the various societal ills that have set the stage since time immemorial for small, non-representative groups of people (read: wealthy white men) to call the shots for everyone and sexist language is one of them.

On Sunday, in honor of International Women’s Day, a friend of ours sent us a link to an article in the Guardian about the Oxford Dictionaries’ efforts to clean up their sexist language. For example, in the definition of “nagging” they are getting rid of the example “nagging wife” and they are removing all references to anatomy that don’t directly have to do with anatomy. Here’s the link in case you want to read about the go-to ways of denigrating women that will no longer be dictionary-sanctioned: https://amp.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/06/no-more-nagging-wives-how-oxford-dictionaries-is-cleaning-up-sexist-language.

I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea that our reference tools are infected with such sexist bias. Having our history books elide and distort our existences is shitty enough, but to see this bias in the dictionaries we use to sharpen our communication and to simply understand what words mean is some kind of messed up.

As noble as the Oxford dictionaries undertaking is, I was dismayed to read that they don’t intend to remove the word “bitch” as a synonym for “woman.” You got that? Let it sink in for a minute – surely even you will twitch a little at that. The reason?

“The dictionary reflects the way that language is used. It’s a mirror, and so it’s really important that it be a reliable, trustworthy, fact-based repository of information about the English language. That’s why if there’s a slur that exists, and it’s widely known, leaving it out would misrepresent the reality of the uses of the language.” (Katherine Martin, head of Oxford Dictionaries language content and data)

So really what she’s saying is that the dictionary will continue to be used as a tool of oppression. Sure, it’ll get cleaned up some and the cleaner-uppers can pat themselves on the back, but when it comes down to it, it’s too important to mirror the current oppressive reality, and thereby keep it going, than it is to do a thorough, for real, spring clean.

Lest you think that perhaps the other go-to dictionary, Google’s online one, is better, I’ll give you the synonyms provided for “man” and for “woman” and you can see for yourself how profoundly f*cked up things are:

Man: male; adult male; gentleman; youth; guy; fellow; geezer; gent; mother’s son; bloke; chap; lad; dude; bozo; hombre; digger; carl

Woman: lady; girl; member of the fair/gentle sex; female; matron; dowager; lass; lassie; colleen; chick; girly; filly; biddy; bird; popsy; besom; wifie; dame; broad; gal; jane; sister; Sheila; Judy; frail; the female of the species; maid; maiden; damsel; demoiselle; wench; gentlewoman; petticoat; piece; bit; mare; baggage; bitch

Everything including and after “piece” in the set of synonyms for “woman” is labeled either derogatory or offensive, but there is nothing so labeled in the set for “man.” Funny that. Uhm, actually, it’s horrifying. There are four animal words, not including “bitch” and the degree of objectification is amazing – “baggage”? “bit”? “piece”? Really? Shit.

Obviously most people don’t think of women in these ways (I hope…. I think maybe…. please let this be true), but this is the air we all breathe and it’s poisoning us, and the planet. I maintain that it’s impossible for a community of any size to function in healthful ways if any of its members are disrespected in the ways these words convey and thus, we are in deep, deep trouble as we grapple with the crises upon us.

May we be safe with our words (and still speak truth to power).
May we be willing to connect the dots between oppression and bad policy.
May we reset around respectful, healthy language.
May we not make peace with the “oh, it’s just words” bullshit.

Tracy Simpson

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