Dictionaries and sexism

One day a friend and his wife dropped by my office to share the good news that they’d just seen an ultrasound of their baby-to-be.  They didn’t speak English, so we spoke Spanish.  Is the baby a macho or a hembra?, I asked-a boy, or a girl?  My friend and his wife cracked up (American English for “started laughing hard,” although it can also mean “to go crazy”–be careful).  It turns out that macho and hembra are used only in what you might think of as a biological sense–that is, to refer to male or female animals.  A baby boy or baby girl human is a niño or niña.  There’s a similar set of words in French for describing biological sex, as distinct from gender, and that set of words can come in handy. We’ll see more on this below, but first some big-picture issues.

Most dictionaries today are descriptive, rather than prescriptive, meaning that their goal is to describe how language is used, rather than to try to prescribe the way that the editors think that it should be used.  With that goal in mind, what should the editorial stance be towards the ways that language reflects society, and in particular, shitty things in a society–say, sexism in America and the United Kingdom?  Here’s an article on the subject from the New Yorker, and if you like it, be sure to follow the link in it to Deborah Cameron’s article–she is an amazing linguist.  (Full disclosure: I took sociolinguistics from her as an undergrad.  Favorite quote: “Well, that rather fucks the theory up, now, doesn’t it, Kevin?”)


Relevant French vocabulary, with a quote from the French Wikipedia page on sexism:

Le sexisme est une attitude discriminatoire adoptée en raison du sexe.

La critique du sexisme dénonce l’idée selon laquelle les caractéristiques différentes des deux genres masculin et féminin impliqueraient l’attribution de rôles, droits et devoirs distincts dans la société. Elle dénonce cette construction de la société qui attribue un caractère, un rôle, des prédispositions physiques et affectives selon le sexe. La notion de sexe n’est alors plus une notion de sexe biologique (mâle et femelle) mais une construction sociale du genre féminin et du genre masculin limitant par là même le développement de l’individu sur les plans personnel, affectif, professionnel et social.

  • dénoncer: to denounce or condemn; to back out of, to renege on.
  • le devoir: duty, obligation; homework, assignment.
  • affectif: emotional.
  • le mâle: male, in a biological sense.  Slang: studmuffin.
  • la femelle: female, in a biological sense.  Slang: bitch.

None of this stuff is simple or straightforward. As a sociolinguist once said to me: if a language reflects sexism, homophobia, or whatever other nastiness, that’s data. The claim of some of the people interviewed in the article is that when a lexicographer includes sexist language in a dictionary, they’re not just describing it, even if they think that that’s what they’re doing–they’re endorsing it. A good descriptive lexicographer would protest against that claim–see this recent post. How does the person on the street see it? Is the interviewee right in asserting that people perceive the dictionary as an authoritative stamp of approval on the language, rather than seeing it as descriptive of the language, like the lexicographer does? That’s an empirical question, and I don’t know the answer. If you go out and do a survey on this, please let the rest of us know the result…

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