As if to make a massive display of their dearth of self-awareness, Twitter feminists have spent the past few days nagging the Oxford English Dictionary over its definition of the word ‘nagging’. They have also rabidly denounced its definition of ‘rabid’. And they have deployed shrill lingo to slam its definition of ‘shrill’.
To nag a dictionary in a shrill and rabid way over its entries for ‘shrill’, ‘rabid’ and ‘nag’ suggests feminists’ irony deficiency has reached life-threatening levels. Or maybe they're having a cosmic laugh. Never have I been more tempted to view the new, media-led feminism as a Chris Morris-style send-up of buzz-killing liberals than I have while reading about Dictionarygate.
It started with some tweets by the Canadian anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan (male feminists are often the worst). Demonstrating that anthropologists have way too much time on their hands, Mr Oman-Reagan complained to the OED - the default dictionary on Apple’s Mac OS X operating system - about the fact that its definition of the word ‘rabid’ — ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’ — contained the following example: ‘a rabid feminist.’
— Michael Oman-Reagan (@OmanReagan) January 21, 2016
Reinforcing stereotype of “a nagging wife” doesn’t merely reflect use, it actively reproduces sexism. @OxfordWords pic.twitter.com/O5NLIPecCQ — Michael Oman-Reagan (@OmanReagan) January 23, 2016
And on it goes, nag nag nag, berating a dictionary for having the temerity to use phrases — ‘she’s bossy!’; ‘he has a nagging wife!’ — that people use all the time without morphing into bovine misogynists. Before long, Mr Oman-Reagan was joined by any army of time-rich, sense-poor tweeters, all trying to tell the OED to rephrase its use of ‘bossy’, and other words.
For a few hours — which is a year in Twitter time — the OED stood up to these self-elected word cops. Which is amazing. In our era of twitch-hunts and speedily extracted apologies, no one stands up to anyone, least of all to the sad-emoji-wearing, offence-taking crowd.
‘If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism…’, the OED’s Twitter-master said to the complainers, implying they were rabid! Brilliant. But after being branded flippant, the OED folk backtracked — everyone does eventually — and promised to review their entries for ‘rabid’ and other words.
If only there were a word to describe how strongly you felt about feminism… https://t.co/mAsmjUBoOs
— Oxford Dictionaries (@OxfordWords) January 22, 2016
Yes, that’s right: a dictionary — the dictionary — could potentially be rewritten at the behest of a small but noisy mob of the sensitive (‘easily offended or upset’ — OED). The very guide to the English language might soon be altered in order to placate those strangely delicate-yet-arrogant people who make up what passes for radical agitation today. Let’s hope these people don't turn their nagging attention to publishers of the King James Bible next.
Dictionarygate is at once a silly Twitterstorm and also a depressing snapshot of everything wrong with the 21st century. It has it all: Twitter intolerance; radical activism that’s more interested in policing language than in changing society; institutional cowardice, in this case of dictionary compilers who lack the wherewithal to say to small gangs of complainers: ‘No, we will not overhaul our entries just because they rubbed you up the wrong way, just as no other book publisher or TV producer or filmmaker should have to change their stuff in response to irate tweets.’ Dictionarygate shows that defensiveness among the gatekeepers of knowledge can act as a green light to small groups of cultural vandals who arrogantly want to remake society according to their own strange, aloof tastes.
There’s also something Orwellian in the shrill — yes, shrill — demand that dictionaries be emptied of anything that petty authoritarians consider offensive. (In a strange coincidence, the citation the OED uses is taken from a book by the feminist writer Ann Oakley, and is dated 1984):
Just as the Ministry of Truth shoves down the memory hole any inconvenient fact and is constantly redefining words, so today’s PC brigade wants effectively to introduce Newspeak and ensure that the OED — and by extension all English speakers — only uses words in what a mob of moralists has decreed to be The Correct Way.