gender English language change and slang linguistics and lexicography

What’s a nice girl like you doing in a dictionary like this?

In a recent comment, Stan mentioned a newpaper headline about a ‘missing girl’ who was in fact a 30-year-old woman. As he pointed out, ‘there’s no way “missing boy” would have been used to describe a man of 30’ – and this is more or less the message given in the Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for girl. It ends with a note headed ‘Avoiding Offence’, whose advice includes this:

Avoid using girl if it would seem wrong to use boy about a young man of the same age.

And if you look at the definitions in this entry, you’ll see that most include warnings about potentially offensive uses. All of which shows what a minefield this area of language can be. So what can – or should – dictionaries do about language and gender?

It’s a fundamental principle of lexicography that the dictionary’s role is to explain what words mean by observing how people use them – not to make pronouncements about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It follows that dictionaries shouldn’t take sides in any area of language use, but in some cases this is unavoidable. Back in the 1980s, I had the job of editing a dictionary to produce a second edition, and I noticed that the first edition included this definition of apartheid (this was at a time when the apartheid system was still in full force):

the keeping separate of races of different colours in one country, especially of Europeans and non-Europeans in South Africa

We changed this to:

in South Africa, the system established by the government of keeping different races separate, especially so as to give advantage to white people

At first sight, the original definition looks more ‘neutral’: it describes the policy, without imputing any motive to those who operated it. But at that time apartheid was a highly contentious issue, and a definition which failed to mention the oppressive nature of apartheid could be seen as endorsing it.

With issues of gender, we face similar dilemmas. As cultural artefacts, dictionaries inevitably reflect the norms of their societies and their times. The original (1969) edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines a plumber as ‘a workman who installs and repairs pipes and plumbing’, and most older dictionaries show a pervasive male bias. On the other hand, if we try too hard to redress this, we could be accused of tokenism or of manipulating the language. It’s a fact, for example, that corpus evidence shows that verbs like nag, gossip and chatter are mainly used with women as subjects, but should this be reflected in the example sentences we choose for the dictionary – or does that just perpetuate negative stereotypes?

Then there is the question of how to define words like termagant, harridan, virago, or shrew. It’s well-known that there are far more words like this for women than for men, and arguably most were invented by men for the purpose of belittling, insulting, or marginalising women. As you’ll see in our definition for harpy, there are plenty of warnings about the effects words like this may produce in the listener or reader. This brings us back to our entry for girl, which also carries warnings about some uses which may cause offence. On the whole, dictionaries do make an effort to portray women (whether in definitions or example sentences) in positive roles, and at Macmillan, our style guide for editors contains advice on avoiding gender bias. This could be seen as a form of ‘language engineering’ – of interfering with the objective data in order to promote a particular view. But we would argue that a dictionary aimed mainly at learners needs to inform its users (whose own cultures may be very different) not only what words mean, but what sensitivities are associated with them.

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Michael Rundell


  • I was Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica A Long-Time ago. And haven’t lived in Ja for most of my life; but lalso Trinidad, St Vincent, Br Guiana/GUYANA, and B’dos, I’ve found; it’s friendly for an ADULT Woman to address another/Groups of others as ‘Girl(s)’; BUT NOT IN CANADA!

    I was a Canadian CGA. And had worked for a CA Firm in OSHAWA. One day I must have expressed ‘Oh BOY! in conversation with one of the two Partners. He was Contentious:: ‘WHAT GID YOU JUST CALL ME!!

    I knew my days were numbered: They Were!

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