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Language definitions

Media response to new ‘woman’ definition shows no understanding of language

Language definitions

Media response to new ‘woman’ definition shows no understanding of language

As a content editor, part of my job is to recognise how language is changing and make sure I’m not using out-of-date words and terminology.

Even in the 10 years I’ve been at Engage Web, I would say there have been notable changes to the way language is used. For example, when I first started here, it was common to see guidance that you should never refer to a single person as “they”, meaning you should write sentences like “everyone should take his or her passport to the airport”. With changing attitudes to gender, this advice has now all but disappeared, and for the better in my opinion. Not only is “their” more inclusive than “his or her” in that particular sentence, but it’s also a lot less clumsy.

Also on the subject of gender, the Cambridge Dictionary recently added a new definition for the word ‘woman’, which can now mean someone who “lives and identifies as female”. This update was actually made in October, but it seemed to take news outlets until mid-December to pick up on it.

And once they did, not all of them responded favourably. Below is a screenshot from The Daily Mail containing some verdicts on what it calls a “woke” definition of the word:

Daily Mail
Daily Mail

Aside from the fact that this piece leaves the most important piece of information (that the main definition of ‘woman’ hasn’t changed) until the end, the people quoted also don’t seem to grasp what the role of a dictionary is. By calling upon the Cambridge Dictionary to explain that this is a “contested” definition, the Campaign for Real Education representative quoted is displaying a basic misunderstanding of what dictionaries and their etymologists are supposed to do.

Dictionaries are there to reflect how we use the language, not to give editorial guidance on how we should be using it. Language changes constantly, which is why dictionaries have such regular updates and why the idea of “correct English” is something of a fallacy. One of the most notorious examples of this is that fact that the dictionary definition of ‘literally’ now includes “used to emphasise what you are saying” – a definition that will make many purists shudder.

It’s interesting that The Mail uses the word “woke”, because that word itself has what you might call a “contested” definition. Originally, it was an adjective meaning “aware, especially of social problems”, but the word is now often used in a negative way to suggest insincere or excessive pandering to certain groups.

Cambridge Dictionary includes both the positive and the disapproving definitions of the word, and whichever one you subscribe to (if either), this is correct, because both definitions are in use. If you don’t like one or the other definition, stop using it. If enough people do the same, it will fall out of the dictionary.

It shows that words rarely have one single meaning, so understanding their context and using them well is essential to conveying the right message. For words that sell and help with content development, talk to us at Engage Web.

John Murray

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