Recently, an anthropologist named Michael Oman-Reagan noticed some decidedly sexist language lurking in the example sentences for several Oxford Dictionaries entries — entries for common words that don't have anything to do with gender, like rabid ("a rabid feminist"), shrill ("the rising shrill of women's voices"), and psyche ("I will never really fathom the female psyche"). Even the entry for "weak" uses female pronouns: "She was recovering from the flu and was very weak."
Meanwhile, the example sentences for words like doctorate, scientist, and smart used male pronouns. Taken together, the example sentences seemed to suggest a pattern of sexism — one that, once spotted, became ever more obvious and confounding.
Oman-Reagan took to Twitter to call out Oxford Dictionaries for the biased language.
Lots of people began to respond by retweeting him and finding their own examples (while some opted to lash out with misogynist comments) — and then whoever runs the dictionary's Twitter account unwisely decided to add fuel to the fire by posting a flippant reply.
If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism… https://t.co/mAsmjUBoOs— Oxford Dictionaries (@OxfordWords) January 22, 2016
Oxford Dictionaries has since apologized and promised to "look into" the matter. The company also laid out its methodology for writing example sentences in a blog post on January 26:
Lexicographers use software to analyse examples of a word in order to determine the most typical manner in which it is used. The ideal example supports its definition by showing the word or sense in a typical grammatical and semantic context, in combination with other words it is statistically associated with, thereby reflecting the observed reality of English usage.
The post (written, it would seem, by a woman named Katherine Connor Martin), includes an apology but is also a bit defensive. For instance, it notes that the example for rabid "is an accurate representation of the meaning of the word," even while conceding that it was "poorly chosen" and that another, less gendered example could have easily been used.
Oman-Reagan is not the first person to highlight the issue of supposedly neutral information sources containing harmful biases. In a post on Medium, he pointed to a piece on the same topic, published in 2014, by blogger Nordette Adams, who gets right to the heart of the problem: By including sexist language that reinforces stereotypes in a supposedly impartial source, Oxford Dictionaries is actually both condoning and helping ingrain those stereotypes. Adams wrote:
Whenever we craft information for consumption, we inject our subjectivity. We inject it through our edits — what we choose to leave in, what we choose to take out, what examples we choose or do not choose to use, and our choices can shape readers' perceptions and opinions of issues, situations, ideologies, and what we mean to each other. Consider that for years people justified calling black people the n-word because in Webster's dictionary, one definition for the n-word was "a Negro." How often have you settled an argument about the correct meaning of a word by whipping out your dictionary?
The editors of dictionaries indeed influence human perception of the world and attitudes toward certain objects or phrases. Through examples, it can even shape the meaning of the word feminist when feminist is not the word the reader looks up.
In its response to Oman-Reagan's claims, Oxford Dictionaries tried to deflect blame, protesting that its entries merely reflect language as it is and has historically been used. But as a source of authority regarding word usage, the dictionary helps to create and normalize that usage, and thus should hold itself to a higher level of scrutiny.
Ironically, Oxford Dictionaries' definition of "sexist" contains the example sentence: "I want to make it clear that I’m certainly not a sexist." Perhaps now, thanks to Oman-Reagan and many others, the dictionary's editors will take that idea a bit more to heart.