Mapping 'woman' in the Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford Thesaurus of English

Oxford University Press (OUP) publishes many different dictionaries, and we welcome input from members of the public to inform their ongoing revision. A recent public petition has expressed concerns about the treatment of the word woman in one of our dictionaries; the petition raises some useful points for consideration, but it also presents an opportunity for us to provide some context about the methods of lexicography. Often—and this case is no exception—there is a nuance to how words are defined and presented in our dictionaries, which is important to take into account.

Firstly, the petition refers variously to ‘Oxford’s English Dictionary online’ and ‘the Oxford English Dictionary’. It is worth noting that none of the content mentioned in the petition appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (oed.com), which is a scholarly dictionary covering the full history of English. The content discussed in the petition derives from the Oxford Thesaurus of English and the Oxford Dictionary of English, which aim to cover contemporary English usage and are accessible online in a variety of formats.

These texts are based on the methodologies of descriptive, corpus-based lexicography, meaning that editors analyse large quantities of evidence from real-life use to determine the meanings of words. 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. Nonetheless, part of the descriptive process is to make a word’s offensive status clear in the dictionary’s treatment. For instance, the phrase the little woman is defined as ‘a condescending way of referring to one’s wife’, and the use of ‘bit’ as a synonym for woman is labelled as ‘derogatory’ in the thesaurus. Sensibilities regarding language are constantly changing, and our editorial team is always grateful for feedback to ensure that the status of offensive or denigrating terms is clear to our readers.

Because our dictionary is based on evidence of actual usage, entries for two different words will only be perfectly parallel if the words are genuinely used in a perfectly parallel way. Our editors are investigating whether there are senses of woman which are not currently covered but should be added in a future update. Nonetheless, the dictionary entries cannot be completely parallel unless evidence shows that the words man and woman are used in identical ways; at present that is not the case. For instance, sense 4 of man is defined as a figure or token used in playing a board game’, but that meaning is not evidenced for woman. Statistical analysis of large digital text databases, or corpora, shows that there are significant differences in how the words man and woman are used—people speak of a ‘man about town’ but rarely of a ‘woman about town’; of a ‘ladies’ man’ but not a ‘gentlemen’s lady’; of ‘womanly’ curves and wiles, but ‘manly’ handshakes and jawlines.

The relationship between the dictionary and the living language is more like a map than a set of directions; it can tell you the contours of the landscape, but not direct you on where to go or how to get there. As the usage of English speakers changes over time, the dictionary changes to reflect that new lexical terrain. The current cultural moment has seen an increasing acknowledgment of the real-life impact that words can have on individuals and groups. As this awareness leads to changes in linguistic behaviour, the dictionary will seek to record them.


Katherine Connor Martin, Head of Lexical Content Strategy

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