Oct 17, 2012

Macquarie, Misogyny and Men who hate women

Julia Gillard has been criticised for changing the definition of misogynist to suit her attack on Tony Abbott. Now, Macquarie Dictionary have updated their entry for 'misogyny', seemingly to reflect Gillard's usage. But is it as simple as that? Can a Prime Minister drive such language change? Will Steed and Aidan Wilson think not.


Will Steed and Aidan Wilson write…

This is one of the questions put to the panel on Q&A this week:

A lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. A misogynist hates women and girls. Julia Gillard announced to Australia and the whole world that Tony Abbott is a misogynist, which is a false statement with deliberate intent to deceive. Is the real Julia Gillard a confirmed liar?

The ensuing debate wasn’t very enlightening, and doesn’t merit any attention here, although Bill Shorten did have this to say in response:

Misogyny, to me, is a— in the language which I understand it to have been used most recently is a view that there are some people who have a prejudice about women in certain occupations and they have an unexamined view in their own head about the status of women and the equality of women to do a whole range of things.

In the wake of Julia Gillard’s now-viral speech, Macquarie Dictionary has moved to amend its definition of ‘misogyny’.

The backlash has been quick: Barnaby Joyce this morning called Macquarie’s decision ‘convenient‘, and NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash thinks this could set a precedent whereby the dictionary becomes a defence against criticism of the PM. Sexism, for instance, could be redefined as ‘any criticism of the Prime Minister’, and budget surplus ‘a mythical accounting trick popular with voters’’.

However, both appear to misunderstand Macquarie’s motivations, and the purpose of a dictionary. But more on that later. First, let’s look at what Gillard meant by ‘misogyny’. Here’s one example from her speech (you can read the full transcript here):

I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny of the Leader of the Opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself…”, something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair.

What Gillard seemed to be implying about Abbott was not that he hates women, but that he shows prejudice against women, or perhaps women in power, and she provided ample documentary evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case. This would seem to align more with a typical definition of ‘sexism’ than Macquarie’s current definition of ‘misogyny’.

Macquarie’s new definition, ‘an entrenched prejudice against women’, matches Gillard’s use, the use of the word in media reports and by much of the general public. The current definition, one assumes, will still be retained in clinical psychology.

Was Julia Gillard wrong to use the word this way? Not necessarily, no. While it impedes good communication to use a word with a different meaning to everyone else, this is not what she was doing. She used the word in a way that most people understand, even though it is not exactly the dictionary definition. Some other dictionaries, for example dictionary.com (popular, but not necessarily completely reliable), already have a more general definition: “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women” and the Oxford English Dictionary (up there in the reliability stakes) defines misogyny as “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women”.

Once a majority of the population understand a particular meaning of a word, a dictionary changes to reflect current use. This change is not caused by Julia Gillard’s speech; her use corresponds to the meaning that is already in most people’s own vocabularies.

It is important to point out one of the primary purposes of a dictionary – to record the past and present usages of words and their definitions. If the general use changes, the dictionary changes to match it, hopefully with as little lag as possible. In the good old days when dictionaries took entire bookshelves, you might be waiting decades for a dictionary to catch up to contemporary usage, and by the time it’s published, it’s already out of date. In this brave new digital world though, changes to dictionaries can happen much quicker: Macquarie expects their updated definition of misogyny to be published online this year, and in print late next year.

Misogyny has been used in English both here and around the world, possibly for decades, to refer not to actual hatred of women, but to the entrenched systematic, often institutionalised subjugation of and prejudice towards women, usually by men. With that in mind, the term ‘sexism’ just doesn’t cut it.

Macquarie aren’t changing the dictionary just because of what the PM said; they’re updating an entry to reflect the community’s current usage, usage which happened to be exemplified last week by the PM and watched by millions internationally, as she convincingly and comprehensively tore Abbott a new one.

What remains to be seen is how the meaning of ‘misogyny’ will change further in the future. Will the more general definition remain, or will use swing it back towards the more specific, clinical definition? Perhaps a third meaning will eclipse both, or be used alongside the current definitions.

This is what makes language interesting!

Apologies to Stieg Larsson for one third of the title of this post.

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16 thoughts on “Macquarie, Misogyny and Men who hate women

  1. justin cotton

    I totally agree with Hamis. And the minority religious community still wants to butt into and rule everyone else’s lives also….

  2. Hamis Hill

    It stands to reason that the perverts who prey upon children must hate and fear those most likel-y to deprive them of their desires- women.
    So why not widen the debate on misogyny to include the difficulties being experienced by the Victorian Police in protecting children in a certain, minority religous community?
    And if the “many, many” politicians repesenting this minority, religious community cannot guarantee the safety of their own children what on earth are they doing trying to rule the country through government?
    Now if you want conspiracy and coverup get your shovels out.
    The “conservatives” have been burying this issue for centuries.
    Start digging.
    Or, given the scale of the problem, a Royal Commission?

  3. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Christopher Nagle, if you want to open up a new discussion front you should define your parameters a bit better. For example what is the position of the Catholic Church on abortion ‘these days’? Can this position be criticised for being misogynistic or sexist or are you saying church dogma is out of bounds? Who are you talking about when you assert that the advance of genetics “… makes it easier to rationalize killing them [the persons who in every important respect emerge at the moment of conception] and making up anodyne clinical language to asuage (sic) the collective conscience”.
    It sounds like you have set up a straw man argument in your own terms and then shot it down. Which might assuage your own conscience but it contributes nothing to the debate.

  4. Draco Houston

    Petroleuse, the word has been used this way for a long time now. That is really all there is to it. I don’t think I have ever heard misogyny used to describe a literal hatred of women :\

  5. Christopher Nagle

    As far as I am concerned, Abbott just got a dose of his own medicine with the magnificent double barelled spray of number one load ideological shot.

    I think the mysogeny attribution was a little dubious, but whatever, Abbott deserved it.

    However, out of that context, ‘mysogeny’ is in this process being converted into a broad spectrum propaganda weapon, much in the same way as ‘homophobe’. This kind of terminology is reminiscent of the language of religious heresy and political deviationism. It is an oracular and authoritarian trick that works well for a while, but rapidly degenerates into cliche and dishonest evasion.

    The postion of the Catholic Church on abortion isn’t fashionable these days, but that doesn’t mean it is without intellectual merit or that its argument is lost. If anything, modern genetics points up to the absolute truth that a person in every important respect emerges at the moment of conception. The fact that they don’t have a social network to protect them and they haven’t developed a nervous system to register pain and suffering just makes it easier to rationalize killing them and making up anodyne clinical language to asuage the collective conscience. To suggest that that is somehow mysogenistic or sexist is just the most breath taking double talk coming from people who for the most part get extremely squeamish about capital punishment or acts of war!

  6. Edward James

    Rewriting history is it seems still the option of those in power. Edward James

  7. blackdog

    Petroleuse – perhaps women experience the distress and disempowerment of the discriminatory, negative putdowns, insinuations, sexual overtones etc and equate the two, so to we who continually put up with that crap – someone like TA represents all that we do not like are are fighting in trying to create a society that is respectful, inclusive and positive towards women…rather than all that we see that represents that word….ie misogynist..and of course the thought that he could be our primeminister is quite shocking

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Since I read Simon Winchester’s 2003 book “The Meaning of Everything” about the creation of the Oxford Dictionary, I have come to accept that there is no umpire or even arbiter of English language usage. So, Petroleuse, you are welcome to your opinion that, “…the vast majority of Australians (ie not the Fembot Twitterati) understand this word [misogynist] to mean someone (usually a man) who despises women”, but it will probably never be recognised in a dictionary.

  9. Petroleuse

    Of course words morph and change meaning: through collective usage and understanding. But not overnight and not in response to one speech by a politician. Much of this debate has been fuelled by outrage that Gillard smeared Abbott by calling him a ‘misogynist’: the vast majority of Australians (ie not the Fembot Twitterati) understand this word to mean someone (usually a man) who despises women. Not someone with entrenched prejudice – that’s sexism. Goebells is surely laughing in his grave.

  10. Andrew McIntosh

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

  11. Stephen

    “Macquarie Dictionary
    (proper nouns) overrated Australian book containing the words of English and their trendy definitions, commonly used by people who don’t know about Chambers Dictionary”

    1. William Steed

      English is a pluricentric language – it has no central authority that declares a word, meaning or grammatical structure as correct or incorrect. Some dictionaries (for example, Websters) were started in order to provide some sort of standard for a particular place and time (in addition to their role of recording usage), but the standards they have chosen are different. Given that most of the dictionaries considered standardisers that have arisen come out of the US or the UK, Australia would be lacking any widely published record of Australian language use without Australian dictionaries like the Macquarie.

      As it is, Australians often find themselves at a loss as to whether to match UK or US usage (in punctuation, spelling and some small aspects of grammar), so it is handy to have a reference of what is commonly used here. I find that Macquarie does that job quite well.

      If you are someone who finds it appalling that language changes, and would rather that usage remains the same as it was when you (or perhaps your parents) first learned (or perhaps learnt) it, I can imagine that the whole concept of changing a meaning in a dictionary is difficult to take. It is, however, standard practice.

  12. Sanjay

    This debate has gone to the dogs. My question would be, in recent times have there been any women who have been able MPs? I cant think of any.

    1. William Steed

      Sanjay, I count the proportion of able female MPs to be approximately the same as that of male MPs. I decline to disclose that proportion, only to say that they’re about the same.

  13. Rhona Johnson

    The meanings of words do change over time, take for instance the use of the word gay to descibe homosexuality. Once upon a time having a gay old time meant enjoying oneself.

  14. Rebecca Smith

    What a bunch of illiterate self-serving mendicants are the gutter press of today, and their toadies on the opposition benches. Gillard didn’t change the word or cause the Macquarie Dictionary to change the meaning of ‘misogyny’ – the word ‘misogyny’ has too departed from its original meaning. This has long ago been picked up by the Oxford Dictionary. Let’s look at ‘homophobia’ – it doesn’t mean an irrational panicky fear of homosexuals, does it now? Following on, ‘gay’ has certainly taken on different meanings to ‘joyous’. ‘Paedophiles’ don’t LOVE children, they see kids as sexual objects. And ‘decimate’ – being a purist I know it means to kill one in 10 – from the Roman centurians decimating the troops to instil fear and obedience. After picking on someone for ‘incorrectly’ using the word for a military massacre, it was with some surprise that when I looked it up in the dictionary common usage had taken over and it now means the same as ‘massacre’. Words change, societal usage changes. Those people harping on about Gillard’s (justified) use of the word ‘misogynist’ on Abbott do so because they have no other cudgel to bear.

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