It’s rare when the redefining of a word in a dictionary finds itself at the centre of a political storm. But so it is in a spectacular row in Australia.
First, the background. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard swept across YouTube recently following her extraordinary attack on opposition leader Tony Abbott in parliament. The attack followed the resignation of speaker Peter Slipper, who had been accused of sexual harassment. Opposition moves to unseat him saw Ms Gillard launch an attack on Mr Abbott’s own values.
Her tirade included the particularly memorable “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror.”
There was a lot of aftermath. One strand was about semantics. Ms Gillard had used misogyny, which means a hatred of women, to mean prejudice against women. Had it been a lack of understanding of the correct meaning? Or had it been a deliberate conflation of the two senses in order to score a political point?
And then the Macquarie ditionary came along. Australia’s foremost authority on language decided to extend its definition of misogyny to a synonym for sexism, an ‘entrenched prejudice against women’, to reflect the fact that the usage of the word has changed.
Outcry? You bet. While linguists might have applauded the dictionary editors for being responsive to language change and acting accordingly, they would also have said it was a bit late, with the Oxford English Dictionary pointing out it had added the new sense 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Ms Gillard’s opponents cried foul and anger over the fact that dictionaries should not be making political points by redefining words and it was not up to the Prime Minister to misuse a word and then expect lexicographers to back her up. The Macquarie editor was forced to issue a follow-up statement further defending the decision.
There has been much debate worldwide about the word misogyny, the word sexism, their worldwide usage, whether they are the same or different, whether dictionaries should make changes in this way, and so on.
I suspect that the outcome to all of this is that even if the word misogyny had only previously meant hatred of women in people’s minds, it will now be entrenched for all with the sense of sexism as well, and that this incident has simply confirmed an evolution in meaning that has been taking place over the last 20 or 30 years. And of course, that is what language does. It is just a little uncommon for that gradual shift to become the subject of such frenzied international debate. But I think it is fair to say that misogyny is now a word with a definitive new meaning.