You can change the world, one dictionary entry at a time



“Everyone who thinks at all has noticed that our language is practically useless for describing anything that goes on inside the brain.”
– George Orwell

Maria Beatrice Giovanardi is proof that words matter and we can change the world by forcing change in how they’re used. And defined.

Some little time ago, as this fascinating piece in British Vogue reports, Ms Giovanardi was looking up synonyms for the word ‘woman’ in early 2019 and came upon the following: ‘piece’, ‘bint’, ‘baggage’, ‘bitch’.

“Basically, around 80 per cent of them were extremely derogatory,” Ms Giovanardi later said, prompting her to ask why. “Why are they there?” she started to think.

She considered the listed examples of how to use the synonyms in a sentence and found those to be “very sexist” as well. She says she “sent it (the list of examples) to some friends and fellow activists, and they were also shocked by it.”

The Oxford Dictionaries’ examples included:

** “Ms September will embody the professional yet sexy career woman”.

** “Male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut”.

What happened next was quite amazing. Ms Giovanardi wrote to OUP questioning the entry for ‘woman’ in their dictionaries. Receiving no response, she put an essay on ‘Medium’. Then she launched a petition asking for support on changing the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ in order to remove descriptions and phrases that “discriminate and patronise” or “connote men’s ownership” of women.

The petition caught the attention of ‘The Guardian’, says Vogue. (Might have been dumb luck, of course, but to me, it indicates remarkable alertness on the part of some journalists.) Anyway, Vogue says that Ms Giovanardi is enormously grateful to ‘The Guardian’ because on day 3 of the petition “we had like 150 signatures, but they published a double-page spread in print. It gave so much authority to the campaign and really explained the issue.”

It wasn’t long before the petition had thousands and thousands of signatures and on March 8, 2020, International Women’s Day, women’s groups, including Women’s Aid and the Women’s Equality Party, took it up. They said something that shouldn’t have needed saying in the 21st century, and for individuals who serve as mothers, wives, lovers, teachers, doctors, writers, artists, singers, astronauts, train drivers, football players, seamstresses, film producers and more. It was as follows:

Bitch is not a synonym for woman. It is dehumanising to call a woman a bitch. It is but one sad, albeit extremely damaging, example of everyday sexism. And that should be explained clearly in the dictionary entry used to describe us.

On March 9, 2020, OUP promised it would change the definition.

But the battle wasn’t over. The pandemic was taking up all the world’s attention and also necessitated social distancing. Accordingly, Ms Giovanardi neither managed the promised meeting with OUP nor did she see the promised change in the dictionary definition of ‘woman’.

She kept at it, though. And in November, it happened. Gender-neutral terminology was applied to define the word ‘woman’ (and ‘man’, as well) and the terrible misogyny of the earlier definition was done away with.

The dictionary meaning of a word is clearly not the only way to view the world.