How Australia's Prime Minister Expanded the Meaning of Misogyny

Last week, Australia's Julia Gillard, the first woman to serve as the country's prime minister, gave an impassioned speech against sexism, accusing conservative Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of being a misogynist. Her words have inspired changes in how that word is defined in Australia's Macquarie Dictionary.

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Last week, Australia's Julia Gillard, the first woman to serve as the country's prime minister, gave an impassioned speech against sexism, accusing conservative Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of being a misogynist. That video made its way around the Internet, as these things do, to the applause and "you go, girl" of many and the predictable anger and criticism of others.

"I will not be lectured about sexism or misogyny by this man ... not now, not ever," she said. "If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror." She goes on to give numerous examples to uphold her claim, including Abbott's references to her as a "witch" and someone who needs to "make an honest woman" of herself. If you missed it, here it is, in all its glory:

Abbott responded calling the speech "cheap" and a personal attack, part of a government smear campaign. But inspired by Gillard's words, according to Reuter's James Grubel, Australia's national Macquarie Dictionary, edited by Susan Butler, is expanding its definition of the word misogyny to keep up with the times.

The dictionary currently defines misogyny as "hatred of women", but will now add a second definition to include "entrenched prejudice against women," suggesting Abbott discriminated against women with his sexist views.

Seems a slight shift, although reaction to the news of a change in the 400-year-plus definition of misogyny has, of course, varied. Is Butler diluting a word, or expanding a definition? Is this prescriptivist or descriptivist; the lexical equivalent of jumping the gun or taking the temperature of the day? One point of view is reflected in Australia's Canberra Times:

I expect Ms. Butler is ahead of the crowd with this. The Macquarie often is, which is one reason it struggles for authority among purists. Its sin is not so much that it is "descriptivist," describing what people actually say and mean, rather than 'prescriptivist,' recording what words "ought to mean." Every dictionary is, at the end of the day, descriptivist, and every dictionary more than a year old is, to an extent, out of date. But some lexicographers, following word herds, note and acknowledge shifts in meaning; others, such as Ms Butler, wheel with the headers, race on the wing, where the best and boldest riders take their place. They are first to notice, and, sometimes, as with quantum theory, their very act of noticing causes the change. That's why the Macquarie is fashionable, but not authoritative. It will be a while yet before I personally dilute the vitriol in misogyny.

That original vitriol remains undiluted in, for example, Merriam-Webster's dictionary definition of the word, an entry that notes a first known use in 1656 as, simply, "a hatred of women." Webster's does evolve and change definitions, however, adding them chronologically from oldest to "youngest." Take, for example, the definition of marriage, which has expanded in recent years to include "(2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>"

Update: Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper tells us, "We've been watching this story with some interest, as you can imagine. As you know, the raw material for all definitions in our dictionaries are citations—examples of words in use. Interestingly, the accumulated evidence we have for misogyny shows it being used it to refer to a very broad spectrum of behaviors, attitudes, and so on. So a broad definition in this case is not necessarily inaccurate. The question, then, is whether "a hatred of women" is as broad enough definition to cover the vast majority of the uses of misogyny."

She added, "Of course, no dictionary definition is written in stone. Every single one of them is reviewed against the latest evidence we have, and misogyny is no exception. In fact, I'm sure that a lot of the stories about the Maquarie Dictionary's decision to broaden the definition of misogyny will end up as citational evidence for the word misogyny."

As we've heard again and again from our American language experts, the words we use are fluid and ever-evolving. The words and meanings that politicians use do, as always, have an impact on our broader lexicons—take the example of "binders of women," used by Mitt Romney last night, now a meme of its own. That doesn't mean the politicians are writing the dictionaries, though, which we probably all can agree is for the best. As Gillard, for her part, said, "I will leave editing dictionaries to those whose special expertise is language."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.