Language is important because it gives us the ability to communicate our hopes, our dreams, and our stupid, misogynistic biases enmeshed in every aspect of culture including how we use gendered language. Yay language!
Even some institutions that you’d think would be careful handling language can disappoint. Like the OED.
You would think that the Oxford English Dictionary would remember the phrase: with great power comes great responsibility. But somebody over at the ol’ OED forgot. The OED literally defines words in the English language. That is its job. It’s currently sucking at it.
Next to the definition of ‘rabid’ (definition: “having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something”) it uses ‘feminist’ to illustrate the word as in, “rabid feminist”. Yes! Because feminism isn’t already beleaguered by misconceptions about the movement for equality between men and women so let’s just rest on some linguistic crutches that underline the tropes of crazy, man-hating, rabid feminist.
Every time little Susie or little Timmy looks up ‘rabid’ in the dictionary, they’ll see ‘feminist’ beside it. Maybe that will be even the first association some people have with the word and the two will be forever intertwined.
Whether the OED people think so or not, ‘rabid’ can have a negative connotation. ‘Feminist’ has enough negative connotations as it is, we don’t need the OED’s help. People are already confused (and, therefore angered or scared) by feminism as they hold tightly onto their dearly beloved patriarchal values and language.
Unfortunately, the OED’s example for rabid is hardly the only time that the dictionary uses gendered language as Michael Oman-Reagon pointed out on The Medium:
“shrill” – defined as “the rising shrill of women’s voices”– and “psyche” – for which the example sentence is, “I will never really fathom the female psyche”. “Grating”, defined as “sounding harsh and unpleasant”, was illustrated with the phrase “her high, grating voice”, while the adjective “nagging” used the example phrase “a nagging wife”.
Taken all together, the OED is clearly not concerned with showing language in an unbiased, neutral way. The examples used don’t even always need to have a noun that’s human, for example, they could have used the “shrill ring of the telephone” but instead, they’ve given into cultural stereotypes.
The Twitter response from the OED has been middling to average: