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Dictionary definition sparks global culture clash

The Cambridge English Dictionary has hit the global headlines by adding an extra meaning to the definition of both man and woman to show how the word is currently used. 

The main definition of woman, for example, remains ‘an adult female’. An additional, more inclusive definition, was added in October: ‘an adult who lives and identifies as female despite having been said to have a different sex at birth’.

The story broke in November when the UK’s Telegraph, long the main voice of Conservative Britain, published an article headlined, ‘Cambridge Dictionary alters the definition of man and woman’, and the culture warriors  were off to do battle with the lexicographers, as Fox News, The Washington Post and Spain’s EL Pais all took sides. 

On social media the story took on a life of its own, forcing Reuters to issue a fact check confirming that the definition ‘adult female’ had not been removed. 

A  spokesperson for Cambridge University Press and Assessment told The Telegraph, “Our editors made this addition to the entry for women in October. They carefully studied usage patterns of the word woman and concluded that this definition is one that learners of English should be aware of to support their understanding of how the language is used”.  

Which may be fine as long as the learner in question can decode the meaning of the complex verb phrase ‘despite having been said to have’ in order to understand the definition in the first place.

Our favourite version of the story came from the BBC’s West African Pidgin Service, which states: ‘Di dictionary expand di definition of “woman” to include any pesin wey ‘identify imsef as female’.” 

Before  the culture warriors  go berserk , we should point out  that in Pidgin, the pronouns ‘im’ and ‘imsef’ are gender neutral and mean not only him/himself, but also her/herself and it/itself.

How woke is that?

In case you’re wondering how Pidgin deals with the ponderous phrase ‘despite having been said to have a different sex when they were born’,  the BBC’s West African Pidgin Service goes for the much more jolly translation, ‘pipo wey bin get “different sex wen dem born dem”. 




Image courtesy of Jill Wellington from Pixabay
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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