Tag Archives: Macquarie Dictionary

An Australian Dictionary Redefines Misogyny

Australian Conservative Party Leader Tony Abbott, accused of “misogyny”

In politics, words can take on new meanings in the blink of an eye. The phrase “binders full of women” had zero currency before the second Obama-Romney debate. Now it’s what many people remember as the debate’s takeaway moment, full of perceived meaning about women, power and the workplace.

In Australia, another word has become caught up in a political storm over the role of women in society and politics. It was uttered—several times—by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny,” Gillard told the Australian parliament.

That was the start of a speech that has rapidly become famous around the globe, thanks to YouTube.

Gillard was defending her government, which had been accused of protecting the speaker of the house, who’d been caught using sexist language in text messages.

Rather than talk about that case, Gillard turned the tables on her government’s accusers, specifically Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.

“The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” said Gillard. “I hope the Leader of the Opposition…is writing out his resignation.”

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,” she contined, “he needs a mirror.”

Gillard’s opponents didn’t take kindly to this speech. More than a few objected to her use of the word misogyny. They said that was going too far, much farther than the word “sexism.”

Sexism, they pointed out, means discrimination based on a person’s sex. But misogyny means intense dislike and mistrust of women.

That’s what the dictionaries say. For the time being at least.

Sue Butler, who is editor of the best-known dictionary of Australian English, the Macquarie Dictionary, said it’s time to update the definition of misogyny. After watching Gillard’s speech, Butler and her fellow editors wondered about their dictionary’s definition of misogyny.

Like most other dictionaries, the Macquarie Dictionary used a definition “that had been standard for some centuries”: the hatred of women.

But Butler and her team of editors didn’t think that Gillard was using the word quite like that. She wasn’t accusing Abbott of a “pathological hatred of women.” The accusation was more of a “common garden prejudice against women, particularly women in positions of power.”

Butler’s team tracked the evolving meaning of misogyny back to 1970s feminist discourse in the United States, where it was often used as a synonym for sexism; a synonym “with a bit more bite to it perhaps,” said Butler. “But still in the same range of meaning of entrenched prejudice.”

And so the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary have announced that they will be updating their definition of misogyny to reflect the way it has evolved in recent decades.

That’s only enraged Prime Minister Gillard’s political opponents for a second time. They say the dictionary’s editors are letting Gillard off the hook, rather than forcing her take responsibility for her hyperbole.

To which Macquarie editor Sue Butler shrugged, and pointed out that many words change their meanings over time.

But what of the statements made by Australia’s Conservative leader Tony Abbott—the very statements that Gillard was calling “misogyny”?

Abbott once wondered whether it was a bad thing that men have more power than women, and suggested that men might be more “adapted to exercise authority.”

And then there were his personal attacks on Julia Gillard.

Gillard told MPs she was offended when Abbott stood next signs that said “Ditch the Witch” and one that called her “a man’s bitch.”

It almost makes the Obama-Romney debate, repeatedly described in the US news media as “feisty,” seem friendly.



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Aussie English and proper English

Not that Australian English isn’t proper…

English is so widely and variously spoken that it barely can be called a single language. That hasn’t stopped grammar stickler Simon Heffer from trying to re-establish order.  The man is seriously old school, and he doesn’t like what any of Britain’s new schools are teaching –or failing to teach — about English usage. We take a trip with Heffer to a school in Suffolk, where he makes the case for his version of correct English: the difference, for example, between I will and I shall. Heffer doesn’t like it when English speakers get in a muddle over foreign terms. The Italian term panini, meaning sandwiches, has essentially become an English word. Most of us either don’t know or don’t worry that panini is plural.  Heffer, though, does. If he’s buying just one sandwich, he will insist on asking for a panino.

No-one’s going to arrest him for that.

Heffer, of course, is far from alone in trying to control our use of  the language, before it descends into hellish and unseemly chaos, no doubt taking us with it.  In the eighteenth century,  English bishop Robert Lowth tried something far more proactive: he laid out a set of  grammar rules for English that were, essentially, borrowed from Latin. To that end, he criticized the likes of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton for their “false syntax”.   Podcast contributor Elise Hahl says Lowth partially won his fight for the Latinization of English grammar. She says that to this day, English is the poorer for it. That said, we  hold up Shakespeare today as the numero uno Literary God of the English language, not least because of his inventive rule-breaking. So maybe Shakespeare and loose English got their revenge.

Also in the pod, poet Les Murray describes some of the more colorful expressions of Australian English: papped, for example, means snapped by paperazzi (or, I suppose, paperazzo if there’s only one photographer, yes Simon?); a window licker means a voyeur.  The keeper of the Australian English flame, by the way, is the Macquarie Dictionary, well worth checking out.

Finally, we check in on a language school in India where the teachers have a strong sense of what constitutes proper English. Mr Heffer might approve.

Listen in iTunes or here.

For more on the endless variations of English, check out our discussion of Rotten English in this podcast from 2008.


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