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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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