By Amit Roy
LET us recall Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean– neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Let us also remember a line from Hamlet: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”
All this becomes relevant because the Oxford Dictionary of English has just updated its definition of the word “woman”.
It follows a year-long “gender review” and pressure from various lobby groups to remove anything considered sexist in today’s world.
The old definition of woman included “a man’s wife, girlfriend or lover” but in the new one, this has been updated to read “a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover”.
The Asian community, being in general very conservative on gender issues, may not immediately embrace the revised definition of “woman”.
Oxford University Pres (OUP) said the Oxford Dictionary of English is “driven solely by evidence of how real people use English in their daily lives”.
Its spokesperson added: “We have expanded the dictionary coverage of ‘woman’ with more examples and idiomatic phrases which depict women in a positive and active manner. We have ensured that offensive synonyms or senses are clearly labelled as such, and only included where we have evidence of real world usage.”
That “woman” is now a loaded word became obvious when Harry Potter author JK Rowling got into trouble earlier this year with supporters of the trans lobby.
Reacting to an online article entitled “Creating a more equal post Covid-19 world for people who menstruate,” Rowling sparked acres of social media hate with the tweet: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
This year for the first time, the BBC has introduced same-sex couples on its popular show, Strictly Come Dancing, with the lesbian boxer Nicola Adams (she beat India’s Mary Kom in the 2012 Olympics semi-final) paired with professional dancer Katya Jones.
Meanwhile, a petition started by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi urging dictionaries to change the definition of “woman” gathered 30,000 signatures.
OUP came under pressure in a letter published in time for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2020, signed by the Women’s Equality Party, Women’s Aid Federation of England, Rights of Women, Bloody Good Period and other organisations.
The letter urged: “We are calling on Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford Dictionary of English, as well as the online Oxford Dictionaries (www.lexico. com), to change their entry for the word ‘woman’. It might not end everyday sexism or the patriarchy but it’s a good start.”
Following the gender review, OUP has updated dozens of words, including “man”. Previously the definition included “a husband or lover” but this was changed to “a person’s husband, boyfriend or male lover”