Thursday, July 17, 2014

We say 'rabid,' you say 'feminist.' Rabid. Feminist. Rabid feminist, brought to you by Oxford Dictionaries

I love the Merriam-Webster site,, but sometimes, when I'm in a hurry, I use the dictionary that Google pops up, and sometimes Google draws the definitions it displays from the well-respected dictionary company, Oxford Dictionaries at Oxford Dictionaries are quite proper, so an example of a typical way to use the defined word appears immediately after the definition.

According to Oxford's first definition, the word rabid means "having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something," and a typical use of the word would be as a modifier for the word feminist: "a rabid feminist." That dictionary doesn't come out and say that this usage is common, but it does present "a rabid feminist" as its only example of usage under the first definition.

"A rabid feminist." Just that one example. Perhaps in England it's common to say "rabid" before feminist. I doubt it, but maybe.

Some feminists are extremely radical out there, but are they so common that "rabid feminist" should be an example in the dictionary? Of all the other possible examples Oxford Dictionaries could have chosen--such as rabid fan which is one of's examples, or rabid supporter, which is's example--what's up with Oxford's choice?

What the Oxford Dictionary has done with its example is a form of naming or labeling. As theorists quoted in the Sourcebook on Rhetoric explain, "the process of naming or labeling is never benign or without consequence."

I think that when an adjective is attached to a noun repeatedly in media or permanently in prominent records, especially when the more powerful in society have already promoted an image of that noun which the adjective reinforces, then eventually that usage cements to the noun the label that the adjective confers. I mean, Christmas is supposed to merry and supermodels must be thin, right? Both those notions are the result of an adjective being cemented to a noun. Increasingly then (especially since the Oxford's example for rabid gets displayed first and prominently by the number one search engine), the attributes of rabid may increasingly be transferred to the word feminist in human consciousness.

Is this a transference feminism can afford or that it should not bother to combat? Rabid, after all, implies violent and angry, and it's not as though the patriarchy hasn't already been successful at moving the public, even many of today's young women, to view feminist as a dirty word. See "feminazi," see "bra-burning bitch," see "man-hater."

What if under dumb the dictionary's usage example were "a dumb blonde"? Or if under anti-Semitic, "an anti-Semitic German"? Would we say then that the dictionary was showing an unkind bias?

True, some people and institutions strive to be unbiased, especially in use of language, and dictionary publishers are one of those institutions we expect to be neutral. But generally the best any person, group, or company can do is nurture their desire to be unbiased, try to be so, and keep up a facade of neutrality.

Whenever we craft information for consumption, we inject our subjectivity. We inject it through our edits--what we choose to leave in, what we choose to take out, what examples we choose or do not choose to use, and our choices can shape readers' perceptions and opinions of issues, situations, ideologies, and what we mean to each other. Consider that for years people justified calling black people the n-word because in Webster's dictionary, one definition for the n-word was "a Negro." How often have you settled an argument about the correct meaning of a word by whipping out your dictionary?

The editors of dictionaries indeed influence human perception of the world and attitudes toward certain objects or phrases. Through examples, it can even shape the meaning of the word feminist when feminist is not the word the reader looks up.

The image of the "rabid feminist" is one conjured and promoted most often by people who don't like feminists. In the case of the word feminist, the potential for damage through this labeling or subtle propaganda is exacerbated by Google's use of the Oxford Dictionary.

I speak here as a Black woman who knows about the power of the same adjectives used repeatedly to re-shape the image of people, places, and activities. For instance, how did the image of Black people being ape-like or bestial take hold? It happened through the process of labeling. And it was only by objecting and protesting the use of adjectives such as ape-like, savage, and bestial to define Black people that Black people have moved closer to self-determination.

Words create symbols and build hierarchies, establish moral codes and taboos, who may be desirable and undesirable. So, let's think about this: our sons and daughters may google the word rabid. When they do sothe first example for that word will be a frothing-at-the-mouth feminist. Is that what we want for our future? Should we demand that Oxford change its usage example or that Google stop using Oxford Dictionaries or both?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I read many anti feminist views and rabid is not a word that I see. It is very dispiriting to see that it is in a reputable publication.

It is all about shamming - the words I do see are usually related to age, appearance, sexual activity. Maybe rabid just isn't considered shaming enough.