A Canadian anthropologist, Michael Oman-Reagan, tweeted Oxford Dictionaries last week to ask it why “rabid feminist” is its Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) usage example for the word “rabid”. Oxford Dictionaries responded by suggesting Oman-Regan may be a rabid feminist. It has since apologised for the “flippant” response and is reviewing the example sentence.
Other sexist ODO sample sentences, according to Oman-Regan, include those for words such as shrill, nagging and bossy. Oxford Dictionaries has explained that these sentences reflect common usage – which I do not doubt – and do not represent the views of the publisher Oxford University Press. But they also, of course, reflect an editorial decision.
According to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life”. The example “rabid feminist” is possible because of its relationship to our form of life – a life in which women are caricatured as shrill, bossy and nagging, and caring about women’s rights is extreme and fanatical.
Wittgenstein believes that “the meaning of a word is its use in language”. Explaining words is not simply a matter of defining a discrete object or concept. Rather, it’s a matter of locating that object or concept in the complex web of usages that we share. In fact, as Wittgenstein shows, for a word to function in language, it does not actually to have to refer to any specific thing. A word’s meaning can exist entirely in how it is used. He explains this abstract idea with this delicious thought experiment:
“Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.”
As the above illustration of an abstract concept suggests, and as the editors of the ODO should recognise, giving examples, to quote Wittgenstein again, “is not an indirect means of explaining … For any general definition can be misunderstood too.” Examples are as important to our understanding as definitions – they connect the threads of that shared web of usages.
The best way to know how someone has “taken” a definition, according to Wittgenstein, is seen in “the use he makes of the word defined”. It’s telling that Oxford Dictionaries’ reaction to being questioned by Oman-Regan was to label his considered feminist action “rabid”. Clearly, definition and example in tandem have led to an understanding that any feminist query – no matter how gentle – is extreme and unwarranted.
It could be possible that the editor responsible for choosing “rabid feminist” as a usage example acted from malice, consciously using their position as an opportunity to propagate oppressive political beliefs. It’s also possible that the editor genuinely believed that this example was the best one to help place the word in its social context. All you need to do is read the tweets below Oxford Dictionaries’ original response to Oman-Regan – the angry, aggressive outpouring of hatred for feminism and feminists – to see that this latter explanation is very possible.
But there are significant problems with this way of thinking about the function of a dictionary. Let’s imagine we live in a society in which it’s widely believed that a certain group – let’s call them Group A – is stupid. This belief has no empirical basis. Would it be okay to use Group A as an illustrative example when explaining the word “stupid”? It would certainly be effective, as it draws on widespread prejudice to locate the word in the web of context in which it is used and meaningful. But it would not be ethical. It would propagate a belief about Group A that has no basis in fact, and legitimate harmful attitudes towards Group A.
In positioning the meaning of a word as its use in language, Wittgenstein opens up possibilities for the evolution not only of the words we use, but also of the contexts we inhabit. The feminist poet and thinker Audre Lorde recognises this potential when she says: “For those of us who write it is necessary to scrutinise not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of the language by which we speak it.” This is particularly true for those of us who write dictionaries.