A dictionary fight

Here’s an interesting new development. Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has expanded its definition of “misogyny” in response to Gillard’s speech on the subject last week.

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.

“The language community is using the word in a slightly different way,” dictionary editor Sue Butler told Reuters.

In her parliamentary speech, Gillard attacked Abbott, a conservative Catholic, for once suggesting men were better adapted to exercise authority, and for once saying that abortion was “the easy way out”. He also stood in front of anti-Gillard protesters with posters saying “ditch the witch”.

Out comes the sarcasm.

Long recognised as a “hatred of women”, misogyny will now encompass “entrenched prejudices of [sic] women”, even though there already existed a word that included this concept, “sexism”.

He (Patrick Carlyon) means prejudices about women, not of women; der. But what about the substance?

I’ve often found myself having to decide which word to use, in these recent [cough] discussions. I often do opt for “sexism,” but not always, and there’s a reason for that. Sexism doesn’t necessarily include hatred. Then again misogyny doesn’t necessarily include sexism, so neither word says everything. But – really, there are times when you need to make clear that what we’re talking about is not just habits or prejudices, it’s hatred and contempt.

But Patrick Carylon seems to think that sexism is not merely not identical to misogyny, but a different thing altogether, even the opposite.

Given the ever-changing flow of words and their meaning, Macquarie has announced a raft of further definition shadings to reflect recent political events and current affairs:

Dog: To be known also as “cat”, after a two-year-old boy at an East Brighton childcare centre pointed at a chihuahua and meowed.

Yes: To be known also as “no”, after a recent Tony Abbott bumble, when he said in a TV interview that he had not read a BHP statement and the next day declared he had read it before the interview.

No: To be known also as “yes”, given Julia Gillard’s election promise that there would be no carbon tax under her Government, soon before her Government announced plans for a carbon tax.

Uh huh. When’s the last time Patrick Carylon was called a witch?

There are letters to The Australian.

MACQUARIE dictionary editor Sue Butler is applying the logic of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Are we to accept that the word misogyny is what some feminists choose it to mean, neither more nor less?

The idea that the Macquarie would change a word’s meaning to lend credence to the Prime Minister’s incorrect and hypocritical use in parliament last week and the feminist views of an isolated few is extraordinary.

The evolution of language should enable users to communicate with greater semantic precision, not less. How do we now differentiate between those who demonstrate prejudice against women and those who have a genuine hatred for them? Or has the intellectual Left mandated that there shall no longer be a difference?

I am alarmed that the editors of the dictionary are more concerned with taking a political stance than with safeguarding the English language.

Carina Dellinger, Broadbeach, Qld

I think the reaction is political too. (Point out the obvious much? Yes, I do.) I think it comes from people who don’t want their casual breezy indifferent sexism called misogyny. “It’s not misogyny unless I explicitly say that I hate all women!” Yeh, see that misconception is why it’s a good idea to tweak the definition. Because yes it is – it is misogyny if you call the women you dislike “bitches” and the rest of the vocabulary. It is. If you can’t quarrel with a woman without letting the epithets fly, then you are a misogynist.


  1. says

    Pffft call this a dictionary fight? In my day we fought with dictionaries flying through the air bopping into peoples heads now that was a dictionary fight!

  2. says

    Rather than make the argument in detail again, I’ll link to my post on this topic. “Hatred of women” is not a definition; it’s a translation. Insisting that we stick to the translation is artificially limiting our discussion of the concepts involved, and it is highly inconsistent with how we use the related word “misanthropy”.

    Not surprisingly, that post has been seeing renewed traffic and linking since Gillard’s speech.

  3. AsqJames says

    Tangential (and incredibly trivial I know), but…

    “The language community is using the word in a slightly different way,” dictionary editor Sue Butler told Reuters.

    First of all, the use of the word community to denote any group of people who are connected through any tiny part of their life, history or character does my head in. Apart from being meaningless, it gives weight to the “community leaders” concept which has been rightly criticised here and elsewhere.

    Secondly, what (TF) is the “language community”? Do you mean people who use language? If so, why not just say “people”? If you mean journalists, politicians and others who might be considered “opinion makers”, why not say that? This from a lexicographer – someone we might reasonably expect to use language a little more precisely than most.

  4. Matt Penfold says

    The dictionary seems to have acknowledged its definition was not up to date. Dictionaries reflect the usage of words, and it seems pretty clear to me that for sometime misogyny has been used to refer to “entrenched prejudice against women”. I would also argue that usage is a form of sexism that is not inadvertent or unintentional.

  5. Bernard Bumner says

    Reactionaries who claim that language is immutable in order to deflect criticism? I call them nice and the brave!

  6. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    AsqJames—you must be inside my head. I was going to type the exact same thing. It’s so irksome!

  7. bcmystery says

    This makes me think of my grandfather. He was kind, courteous, and would never tolerate explicit disrespect of women. A misogynist? No, or rather not exactly. But he was sexist as all get out. If you asked him, he would even say he thought women should have the same rights as men. He was proud of his wife when she “cancelled out” his vote in 1972 (she voted McGovern) and thought it was great when my female cousins went to college.

    But he was also blind to his own privilege. It came out in subtle ways, but it wasn’t hard to see. When he heard one of my cousins was considering a career in physics, he couldn’t believe it. Women were supposed to be teachers and nurses. He was uncomfortable when his regular doctor couldn’t see him and he was seen by a woman doctor instead. It’s fair to say he suffered from a kind of quiet misogyny of low expectations. He liked women, he honored women, but they weren’t men.

    Yet he would also be appalled and utterly opposed to the kind of abuse meted out as a matter of course by MRAs. Part of the reason for that would be his underlying sexist protectiveness toward women, but part of it would be because you just don’t treat people that way.

    I think the difference between between someone like my sexist grandfather and the typical MRA is my grandfather was educable. Looking back, I can see ways he changed as he got older. If he’d lived longer, I can believe he might have become increasingly enlightened. Maybe. I could be giving him the benefit of the doubt here. After all, he was my grandfather. And he died a long time ago. No telling how I’ve reshaped my memories of him over three decades.

    Anyway, this a long way of saying I think shifting nuance in language is important to understanding where problems lie and how to tackle them. My grandfather wasn’t strictly a “misogynist” but he did have misogynist beliefs. He could more accurately be called a sexist though (but not only a sexist). I think with him, if you identified a misogynist behavior, you might be able to get him to see how it was wrong and change his views.

    In contrast, there are clearly people who are true misogynists, socially, politically, interpersonally. I know it’s seen as reckless or unfair to say a person is X, rather than a person expresses X attitudes or behaviors, since we don’t know what’s going on inside their head. But with some people, they own their behavior so proudly and vehemently that it’s reasonable to surmise their identity is linked to their behavior. In such cases, call them out. If they don’t like being called misogynists (or sexists or homophobes or racists) let them show in their behavior why they don’t deserve the label. Shouting, “I’m not a misogynist becuz BITCHEZ!” is just another way of shouting, “Yeah, I’m a misogynist.”

    And so, in the end, the shifting definition in this case makes sense to me, because it shines a light on how culture and discourse have shifted. The people who fight the hardest against it seem like people who don’t like having their own attitude and behavior more accurately defined. They’re not educable, and they don’t want anyone else to be either. I’ll shut up now.

  8. says

    Agreed, about “community.” I didn’t gripe about it this time, but I usually do. It’s come to be (more language shifting! in a bad way, this time) used to mean things like field, discipline, profession – “the science community” and the like. That’s stupid – it’s just a sloppy word for it.

    bc – that’s a good point. There are people who are misogynist but not sexist, weirdly. They think women should go into science and all that. It’s just that those women have to put up with being called cunts and bitches once they get there.

  9. says

    It’s sort of postmodern sexism. Not your grandparents’ sexism. Postfeminism sexism. Women are equal now so there’s no problem with pouring contempt on them at every opportunity. That’s Abbie Smith’s position (combined with the position that pretty women are obviously better than ugly women and that ugly women should be punished for being ugly).

  10. unity says

    I’m going to try and keep this simple and stay out of the politics.

    Sexism is gendered prejudice but not a gender exclusive trait, i.e. there is no reason, a priori, why women cannot cannot have sexist attitudes toward men.

    Misogyny, and its polar opposite, misandry, are gender exclusive terms which denote prejudice against a specific gender, so defining misogyny as ‘entrenched prejudice against woman’, or misandry as ‘entrenched prejudiced against men’ seems to me to entirely reasonable for a purely linguistic standpoint.

    I don’t believe that we are, in any real sense, diluting the meaning of misogyny by defining it in terms of entrenched prejudice rather than hatred, rather we are reflecting more accurately the fact that misogyny is a form of prejudice that tends to be intractable to reason or contradictory evidence.

  11. F says

    Sexism is to misogyny as dog is to cat. Gah! How did I not see this before? They are just totally redefining misogyny!

    Stupid troll is stupid.

  12. F says

    Pfff, I don’t see this as a redefinition, added definition, or shift in definition. I think it is a simple clarification by dictionary folks. The backlash is an attempt to retcon a very narrow and overly specific definition (without addressing the definition of ‘hate” in any way, rendering the complaint doubly useless).

  13. briane says

    No: To be known also as “yes”, given Julia Gillard’s election promise that there would be no carbon tax under her Government, soon before her Government announced plans for a carbon tax.

    This old lie again! Gillard she would not introduce a carbon tax, but would bring in a carbon price. The media keep quoting the first part, but not the price part. The government brought in a permit system for industry that generates lots of co2. It’s not a tax. But the media, mostly Murdoch bullies keep calling it a tax and selectively quoting that Gillard said she’d not bring in a carbon tax. Why don’t they be honest and say ‘we hate that bitch Gillard and will say anything to bring down her government. We’ll get out man, Abbott, PM and women can go back to the kitchen or looking pretty in the background’.

  14. Stacy says

    Suddenly “misogyny” refers to “genuine” hatred (what’s that, exactly? Virulent hatred? Does dislike count?)–and this has been its understood meaning since forever. Yeah, no.

    I grew up (1960s) hearing “misogynist” used for men who were prejudiced against women, or who had a mild dislike of women and tendency to avoid their company. That sort of misogyny was based on stereotypical ideas of women, though it wasn’t necessarily seen that way (few people noticed or acknowledged that women were being stereotyped.) Misogyny was sometimes floated as a sort of cute, quaint trait, susceptible to modification if the man met the right woman–think Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. A confirmed old bachelor (hetero or gay)–the sort of fellow who avoided silly, frilly women and preferred the company of men–was called a misogynist. Used that way the word connoted not hatred so much as dislike rooted in stereotypical notions of “feminine” behavior.

    So now MacQuarie’s trying to define the word to reflect (contemporary) usage. How dare they.

  15. anya says

    The people who fight the hardest against it seem like people who don’t like having their own attitude and behavior more accurately defined.

    I don’t know. They could possibly just have family members, like your grandfather, who would now be labelled “misogynist” under the new definition, when they’re really just guilty of some old-school sexism, or cluelessness.

    But – really, there are times when you need to make clear that what we’re talking about is not just habits or prejudices, it’s hatred and contempt.

    Yes. This.

    I have uncles and male cousins who are biased against women in some ways. They aren’t misogynists.

    Guess we’ll have to make up a new term for men who actually hate women now. I wonder if the Macquarie dictionary would accept “Sandilandsian”.

  16. says

    “…what we’re talking about is not just habits or prejudices, it’s hatred and contempt”

    C’mon Aussies. We’re specifically denouncing behaviour only. Not feelings. Nor inner monologues driven by them.

    Otherwise let’s update our dictionaries to reflect our new meaning for “freethought”.

  17. anya says


    Oh, I *was* talking about actions! The bold quote was from Ophelia and highlighted to show my reservation over softening the meaning of misogyny. ‘Hate’ can encompass hateful actions–it’s not all about feels or “inner monolgues.”

    My uncles and cousins sometimes engage in some old-school chivalry, but I think we need a word that captures the distinction between those clueless, old-school sexist acts, and men who tell women they’re uppity western bitches who should be raped to death because said women dared to disagree with them on the internet, you know?

  18. bcmystery says

    Anya, you may be right, though I thinking of those noisily vocal folks who respond to any discussion in this area which unrestrained rage, endless slurs and epithets, unrelenting harassment, elisions and misrepresentations of the statements and positions of the women they oppose. The more vehemently they react, the more they prove the truth of the proposition, as it were.

    In these cases, it isn’t really relevant that their feelings might have been hurt because either themselves or some family might now be defined as a misogynist rather than a sexist. You don’t get to bomb the embassy, as it were, just because your feelings were hurt.

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