Dic abuse – prescriptivists vs descriptivists rematch – ‘misogyny’ definition edition

When you get to my age seeing the pearl-clutchers swoon angrily over dictionaries having the temerity to change something gets old, especially when it’s yet another round of people just showing that they don’t understand what lexicographers actually do.

As I just mentioned on the current Media Circus thread, there’s a fine collection of prescriptivist hyperventilation on display on this ABC story, if you happen to have not seen the phenomenon in full flight before: Gillard’s speech prompts misogyny definition rethink.

I imagine comments on other sites are following the same old ignorant trend.

an infographic showing a range of words about dictionaries and knowledge management

Serendipitous tangential reading: While looking for an illustration for this post I came across In KM… Volume Doesn’t Equal Value: Descriptive vs Prescriptive Approaches to Knowledge Management, which goes into some deeper theory on differing values of prescriptivist vs descriptivist classification systems elsewhere. I think I want to read the James Gleick book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood referenced there – I loved his book on Chaos Theory years ago.

Categories: culture wars, language, media, parties and factions

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13 replies

  1. The Information was wonderful. The chapter on Ada Lovelace alone makes it worth a read – it left me feeling shattered and inspired at the same time. Highly recommended.

  2. The trouble with discussing the application of the word misogyny is that the untempered expression of contempt for women is so normalized that people can hear it and behave as if they heard only the chirping of little birds. This just in from Honi Soit: Michael Koziol interviewing our old pal Bob Ellis. Don’t worry about Bob, just look at the way the author can write down the evidence with his own hand and immediately follow it with questioning the existence of any evidence:

    He has “some contempt” for those who accuse him of misogyny. An unapologetic Obama supporter (“the greatest orator who ever lived”), Ellis wrote during in 2008 of Hillary Clinton’s “towering frigidity”, describing her as “a stranger to consistency, sincerity and (at a guess) oral sex”.
    More recently he questioned the seriousness of sexual harassment claims levelled at members of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
    “Women, it seems, are tough enough for service on any battlefront but not tough enough to be peeked at in the shower,” he wrote.
    I think Ellis’ critics too often overstate the case. In the same way that Labor’s positioning of Tony Abbott as woman-hater is almost certainly wrong and appalling, to label Ellis a misogynist is a serious charge that demands serious evidence.

  3. to label Ellis a misogynist is a serious charge that demands serious evidence.

    I… what? Is he being ironic? Was the previous paragraph written by someone else and edited in after he’d submitted the article? Or maybe he really is that wilfully ignorant. It’s laughable and also a little terrifying.

  4. Wow, Orlando, that’s an amazing example. I’m over in the boggle corner with tree. …what…the…?…

  5. I wonder if Honi Soit has been taken over by the Young Liberals or if they are all just as bad as each other now.

    • Hasn’t Honi Soit always been rather dichotomous with its op-eds? It’s a vehicle for student politics, after all. I haven’t read it for years, but when I did it almost always seemed like there was a quota for each political group on campus.

  6. There’s a somewhat extended treatment of this at Radio National’s PM program, including Barnaby Joyce’s ignorant tweet.
    Simon Musgrave explains that the OED definition has been ‘hatred or dislike of or prejudice against women’ since 2002.

  7. Susan Butler has a nice piece on the issue of changing meanings, using the word ‘agreeance’ as an example, which she says hangs in the balance.
    That word particularly grated on me when I first heard it back in the 1980s. A few years ago, Roly Sussex on local radio said the word was wrong, but persisting and he urged us not to use it. Recently he said that people are still using it and it looks as though it will become acceptable, although it’s unnecessary and he doesn’t like it.
    Usage is the final arbiter whether we like it or not.

  8. I’m sick of men lecturing women on what misogyny means. Was really disappointed with David Marr, for example.

  9. Brian, I tweeted the OED definition during Q&A (but it didn’t get picked up for the tweetstream on the telly)

    #qanda How about Tony Jones et al look up an *unabridged* dictionary? #oed “misogyny: hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women”— Viv Smythe (@vivsmythe) October 15, 2012

    I also like this point by Simon Musgrove:

    In fact, even in 1656, the earliest citation that the Oxford Dictionary has, and it lists it as ‘the hate or contempt of women’. So even then perhaps there was a sense that hatred was not the only emotion that could be covered by this word.

    Stephanie Zvan, in a piece earlier this year, also pointed out that the oft-cited “hatred of women” meaning is more a literal translation of the word rather than an actual definition of the meaning of the word, and that we should expect dictionaries to offer us more than just translations from antique languages as a matter of principle.
    Also, if your phrasing of ‘nice piece’ was deliberately meta-referential regarding meaning-change slippage, then I salute you! Perhaps we could watch Barnaby Joyce’s head explode if we showed him the changing definition of ‘nice’ since the time of Jane Austen?
    MrRabbit – W.O.R.D.

  10. Hostility. I just realised that’s the word I’ve been hunting for to describe my instinctive choice whether to describe someone’s behaviour as sexist or as misogynist. When I see hostility, I think misogynist. Abbott has always been hostile towards women who step out of line.
    Re. Honi Soit, Ellis has always been a solid Labor man, Abbott obviously isn’t. Which political side the author aligns himself with has no effect on the fact that boys are growing into men so inoculated to hostility and contempt towards women that it just slides over their brain without penetrating. I didn’t even quote the worst bits of the article.
    Re. translation: it’s the same as the people saying someone isn’t homophobic because they don’t “fear” homosexuality.

  11. orlando, I think you’ve got it! (cue Lerner & Lowe)
    Yes, hostility is the key difference. It’s not just a political opponent disagreeing with a woman’s opinions, it’s the particular condescending contempt in the curl of his lip when he feels obliged to engage with the women who are his political opponents (as compared to the approvingly patronising smugness in his mien when speaking of women who support him politically e.g. his Deputy Leader being “a good girl” – that’s sexist but not misogynist).
    Of course Abbott sneeringly disagrees with male political opponents as well, and displays contempt for them too, but there’s a special venom that he reserves for when he’s challenging women.

  12. (Adding a comment via the backend because I can (eta: and hey! I forgot that opens up the thread for another few weeks. Whee!))
    Found a relevant article by CaitieCat (guest posting at Brute Reason) on Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck for other words too – figured it belonged on this thread.

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