‘Bout time the dictionary caught up

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had already won many of our hearts by being the first publicly atheist leader of a major English-speaking nation, really proved her mettle among those on our side of the Great Rift last week-ish when she delivered this speech in Parliament, seizing on Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s hypocritical attempts to paint HER as a misogynist.

(old link, which is region-locked: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfo3SGIiSE0 )

But then, because she’s a damned important public figure using the word “misogyny” the way it is commonly understood by feminists for at least thirty years, e.g. to mean “conscious or unconscious systematic biases or bigotries against women” rather than “tooth-gnashing caricatures of Yosemite Sam screaming ‘Ah hate those wimminz!'”, the public discussion has had an interesting side-effect. Since this discussion largely centred around the meaning of the word, and since the antifeminist quarters’ main defense against the charge is dumbfounded astonishment that anyone would ever mistake them for someone with a “hatred” of women, this has led to something practically unheard-of in recent times: a dictionary stepping in to settle the argument.

In our favour.

Pardon me if I crow a bit.

Yahoo News reports:

In response, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, the authority on the English language in Australia, has decided to broaden the definition of “misogyny” to better match the way the word has been used over the past 30 years.

The dictionary currently defines misogyny as “hatred of women”, but will now add a second definition to include “entrenched prejudice against women”, suggesting Abbott discriminated against women with his sexist views.

Sure, this isn’t Oxford, which still has the anachronistic “hatred of women” — which, I must note, does not parallel appropriately with misanthropy, though it does parallel appropriately with misandry. Sure, nobody’s redefining misandry to match, though systematic oppression of males is like systematic oppression of whites in America, or systematic oppression of rich folks by Socialists, or systematic hunting and killing of unicorns — they’re mythological, in other words. But I do like my parallels, so I’d recommend every dictionary get on board with this definition, and fix both misogyny and misandry to match how people are actually using the words.

Either that, or invent new words to add to our lexicons to mean the new definitions, and somehow encourage their adoption by the people talking about these things primarily. Preferably a word that parallels appropriately with “misanthropy”, since even Molière recognized that misanthropy is not necessarily hatred of humanity back in sixteen-bloody-sixty-six, and the word shares all the same Latin that has given “misogyny” and “misandry” their definitions. (Seriously, this gets to me. Why people accept “misanthropy” as anything short of “hatred of humans” but they split hairs about “misogyny” is completely beyond me.)

In short, don’t be a linguistic prescriptivist. Language evolves. Linguists and scholars and social sciences experts and feminists have all been using the word the way the redefinition frames for decades now. This definition better matches the definition of the word in common usage. So let the words’ definitions change, I say, and ignore the antifeminists and actual misogynists desperately clinging to the definition argument and the oh-so-self-evident fact that they totes love women — even though they believe and fight for things that actively harm these same women.

(Revised for grammar and clarity 5:47am AST. Yes, I’m capable of grammar and clarity at this hour. I work nights!)

‘Bout time the dictionary caught up
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8 thoughts on “‘Bout time the dictionary caught up

  1. 3

    I somewhat grudgingly concede you this one. Definitions have to match usage.
    I haven’t seen the OED entry for misogyny but if, as you say, it does not then this word entry needs amending. I am quite surprised they are so far behind on this, the OED is fairly conservative but has always took a descriptive approach to linguistics, right from its inception.

    The reason for the grudging nature of my concession here is that I begrudge seeing words co-opted in this kind of way. Of course it is a common political tactic, to take a word that has very negative connotations based on one of its meanings and use it or apply it in a different way knowing that those connotations will carry over. In this case, you can call someone a ‘misogynist’ on the basis of supporting a systematic bias, in the full knowledge that the vast majority of the population will assume it is an accusation of hatred of dislike of women, and you win both ways:
    1) If the accused party objects you point to the definition of your choice and you are vindicated.
    2) If the accused party does not object they appear, to many, to be accepting the accusation of ‘woman hater’.

    In a similar manner, if you ever fall out with a foot fetishist spread the news as far and wide as you can that they are a podophile: technically you will be bang on, but it will still have the desired effect of having their windows put through by an angry mob of dullards worried their children are in danger 🙂

    But you are totally correct, we define words by usage nowadays and this has to be reflected in our dictionaries. Maybe this case in Australia will at least highlight the now present ambiguity in the term?

    Jim (np99)

  2. 4

    You might enjoy tigtog’s discussion of the matter at Hoyden About Town:
    And there was a great conversation about it on ABC radio (transcript here: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3612838.htm ) where they actually bothered to talk to a linguist and a lexicographer about it, and they tell us that the OED has defined misogyny as “a hatred or dislike of or prejudice against women” since 2002, AND that the OED’s earliest citation of the word is from 1656, which describes is as “hatred or contempt for women”.
    So the pedants on this one are just wrongitty wrong wrong, for every value of wrongness. I suspect it’s likely the earlier Macquarie version was influenced by the people who wanted to make the word unusable by restricting its meaning to what is not so much a definition as a description of its etymological derivation.

  3. 5

    Ah, well. I used to keep a selection of dictionaries for my students. Avoided Webster’s, it was only there for students who were reading American writers. For the rest, I had Macquarie on the shelf but I never offered it. Because I. don’t. like. it.

    The student version of the Oxford is better by far. Macquarie seems much too focused on recent, common usage and with very little guidance for anyone reading something written more than 20 or 30 years ago, let alone Dickens or Austen. And far too simplified – as we see from it being decades behind Oxford with the misogyny description.

  4. 6

    Noelplum99 #3 reminds me of when MAD Magazine did a parody a political attack ad in the ’70’s. One of the accusations was to say the opposing candidate had a sister who was a thespian and performed her act on stage in front of an audience.

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