Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t know what a woman is
Its new definition is at odds with biological reality
“It’s definitely a girl,” said the doctor performing my ultrasound last week. There was no mention of “assigning sex”, just a statement of fact spoken in the language you would expect. But will my baby girl be allowed to define herself simply as a woman in years to come? Maybe not, if Cambridge Dictionary has its way. The online dictionary has added a new second definition under “woman”: “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”.
It is the latest in a long series of examples that chip away at what it means to be a woman, often erasing our sex class in the process. While Cambridge Dictionary seems to think anyone should be able to call themselves a woman if they happen to feel like it, actual biological women must constantly fight to stake claim to the word. Instead, we are reduced to dehumanising terms like “menstruators” or “cervix-havers” — even in healthcare campaigns.
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A few years ago, Cancer Research ran an awareness campaign calling on “anyone with a cervix” to go for a smear test, and there are an increasing number of NHS maternity services and organisations where gender-neutral terms such as “pregnant people” or “chest-feeders” are creeping into their literature, in some instances even replacing “women” and “mothers”. In July, Merriam-Webster added a supplementary definition of “female” as “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male”.
There is a real danger here. If dictionaries begin to describe women in this way then it will become even harder to maintain a legal definition of the word that allows for necessary female single-sex spaces, such as women’s refuges. This is something that is already becoming contentious — just look at the backlash JK Rowling has faced for daring to launch a women-only support centre for victims of sexual abuse in Edinburgh.
Of course, language evolves and so dictionaries update words and meanings once a new term has entered popular usage, but are we really expected to believe that lexicographers at Cambridge Dictionary think the majority of English-speakers would agree to and use their new definition? A dictionary is supposed to help us define, to find true and accurate meanings in language in order to help make sense of the world around us.
Similar to the trend for invented gender-neutral pronouns, Cambridge Dictionary’s woman update feels like an unnatural attempt to shoehorn in a language change and impose it onto people, whereas a change or addition to a dictionary definition should really be the opposite: coming from the people who use those words, us.
We should always be wary of any attempts to control our language and the way we use words. They are usually authoritarian and ideologically driven, two motivations that certainly have no place in compiling an informative resource.
“It’s definitely a girl,” said my doctor, not because she was trying to be controversial, but because it was the truth.
English dictionaries are descriptive: they define words so that those definitions accurately reflect what people mean when they use them. English dictionaries are not prescriptive (or weren’t in the past): they did not prescribe or dictate what words meant. This is what is new about the Cambridge approach. We should remember that, as English speakers, the language is ours; it isn’t some possession of the Cambridge Dictionary staff to be manipulated to further their views or to be used against their enemies.
I suggest that we continue to use the language naturally, and ignore those who would willfully warp it. Think of it as an important act of subversion. Be subversive: work to protect your language from those who would harm it.
I disagree. Dictionaries were definitive relying on expertise and a belief in objective truth. Conflating sex and gender is an attempt at brainwashing. Children from a very young age can distinguish between male and female, they have to be ‘taught’ they are ‘wrong’.
You are wrong.
I don’t think so
You can think what you like, as can I.
Incontrovertible logic there! ; )
As a matter of fact, that view of what a dictionary is is simply wrong.
No it is not.
Very well said!
You are right that English dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. The Cambridge Dictionary is not being prescriptive. It is truthfully recording a secondary use of the word. The examples is gives are sentences that make it clear that the word is being used in this secondary sense. I see nothing to object to here. The trouble arises if the word is used as if this secondary meaning is the only permissible meaning of the word.
an example of definitive
a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the centre).
move all the way around (someone or something), especially more than once.”they were circling Athens airport”
Without the definition of a circle, there is no meaning, nothing to describe.
The trouble arises when you have the same word to describe two different groups, who have little to do with each other and whose interests clash out in the real world.
The idea is of course to pretend that no differences exist at all. Right now we seem to have retreated to “biological women” as a way of making the distinction; I wonder for how long before trans activists appropriate this term as well, or proclaim it as unacceptable and transphobic.
Any moment now; and hardly trans “activists”!
Trans-fascists. Regardless of shirt being stripey rather than brown/black.
I agree with your two opening sentences, but see mine above – if, as you rightly say, English dictionaries are not prescriptive but descriptive, then its hard to complain at the Cambridge dictionary describing the idiotic current usage.
I don’t find the words ‘descriptive’ or ‘prescriptive’ particularly helpful. My understanding is that they ‘record usage’ which is not quite the same as ‘descriptive’ in my view.
However, one of the problems (particularly relating to the usage of the word ‘woman’) must be ‘whose usage?’ I know what it means when I use it, and when all of my friends and acquaintances use it, and in those cases it NEVER means ‘someone who used to be male’. I don’t really know what such a person may be, but a ‘woman’? No.
Dare I say “There’s glory for you!”
Abraham Lincoln once asked an audience how many legs a dog has – if you call its tail a leg.
When the crowd answered “Five”, Lincoln told them, “No, it’s four. Just because you call the tail a leg, does not make it a leg”.
We currently live in a world where many people – even among our elected representatives and academic institutions – believe that calling something by a different name somehow changes reality.
It’s time we remembered – and reminded them – that just is not so.
A rose by any other name….etc.
I have no doubt the swapping of the word sex for gender was ideologically driven: Ideologically driven by feminists.
Certainly, but it started a long time ago. The introduction of singular ‘they’ and the more or less complete retiring of ‘he’ and ‘she’ was also ideologically driven. In 1970s’ English, the correct pronoun for a generic or unknown -person was ‘he’. It was feminism who started the trend of changing language in order to change people’s minds.
I know – he or she was used as well, not they.
Words like ‘he’ had two meanings: gender-specific and non-gender-specific (‘the male embraces the female’). I think it was the feminist movement that objected to this dual use of the words, and the non-gender-specific usage has largely been replaced by ‘they’ or, less commonly, ‘he or she’. The former is less clumsy, but it means giving a plural word a secondary meaning as singular. So we have three options: ‘he’, ‘he or she’, ‘they’. None are wholly satisfactory, so some writers try to use circumlocution when they can.
In many or even most cases, there’s another way: using plurals for both subjects and verbs. Instead of “The student must submit his/ his or her/ or their assignments on time,” avoid all of those awkward constructions (and virtue signaling) as follows: “Students [plural] must submit their [plural] assignments on time.”
Bingo; counselled that one many times as teacher of English.
The capacity of society to blame feminism (for which read ‘women’) for everything – even when, as in this case, it is something that profoundly disadvantages women – never ceases to both amaze and depress me. The truth is that gender critical feminists are among those fighting the hardest against this regressive and dangerous ideology.
The intention was to advantage women. It backfired.
The separation of sex and gender was initially in the interests of women as it separated sex from societal expectations. How it all went so wrong is a very interesting question and I would like to read others’ thoughts and opinions.
I remember the world before gender. In the olden days we spoke about sex, sex-differences and sex-roles. The word “gender” did not come into it until much later.
I recall being told some fifty-odd years ago in my first French lesson that “gender has nothing to do with sex.” (The examples given then, which I still recall, were ‘la victime’ and ‘la sentinelle’.)
Probably not the example to use for a class of eleven year old boys…..
They would definitely remember.
As I understand it, John Money, psychologist, introduced the word to the world of research. It was taken up by medicos before feminists even thought about it.
Just cutting and pasting because I cannot be bothered to re-type and the comments are pertinent.
I was in the first cohort of pupils to sit a sociology O level. I was taught sex was biological and gender related to culturally determined roles assigned on the basis of sex. Gender was variable but sex was not. The word sex appeared on official forms to differentiate. That was in 1974. By 1980, the word sex had been replaced by gender on official forms. I noticed but I didn’t understand. I actually thought people had become embarrassed by the word sex. When I queried the change in language, I received no answer but had a strong sense I had asked an inappropriate question. I was a STEM student and in those days accustomed to freely expressing myself, I was aware the social sciences were not quite so free but far freer than nowadays. I guess it is a form of the slow March forward, the separation of sex and gender, initiated by feminists and hijacked by the transgender movement. In 1988, I was told I was the wrong type of woman to be invited to a women in a particular STEM subject conference. In the same way BLM and it’s supporters lay claim to the minds of those they claim to protect and call detractors adjacent white and coconuts, there were women who called themselves feminists and decided I had the wrong mindset. I had a different attitude. I enjoyed taking men on, enjoyed the competition, I did not seek special treatment or play the victim. I had too much pride.
The World Health Organisation has not conflated sex and gender – Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time.
Another copy and paste.
The major difference between sex and gender is that sex is fixed (in biology) and gender is not. Gender roles traditionally included clothing or costume, so the idea a change of clothing is equivalent to a change of gender/sex is a natural consequence (unintended for some) of conflating the two words. This is an illustration of how much words do matter. The Cambridge dictionary now defines the word woman as an adult who lives and identifies as a woman (or who dresses and behaves like a stereotypical woman of a bygone era, or who dresses and behaves as a parody of a woman). It results in the claim gender is assigned at birth despite the newborn being naked and the only observable behaviour is that of a baby. The Cambridge dictionary definition of girl is female child or young woman. Female is defined as belonging or relating to women. It is circular and consequently undefined. Interestingly, the Cambridge dictionary definition of man is not anyone who lives and identifies as a man, but as an adult male. The circularity of the definition of male is the same. Is this the first stage of a dictionary writing itself out of existence, leaving it incumbent on the individual to define or lay claim to words? The abandonment of an objective world? The rejection of science?
If i’m right in thinking that Cambridge Dictionary is tied to Cambridge University, this comes as no surprise.
I wish the author well during the remainder of her pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. She will have influence over her daughter, and therefore the opportunity to allow her to develop an awareness of the use of language and meaning. My guess is that by the time her daughter reaches puberty, the issue of how to define a woman will no longer be controversial, but in order to reach that point we must all play our part in reversing the anti-scientific nonsense of denying human biology.
No-one can take your womanhood from you. Your gestation is the living embodiment in a way that dictionary definitions can never erase.
When will this silliness end. Whenever people choose to stand up, we must support them as best we can. If we do not, what little left of the freedom to choose what we tolerate and accept is gone.
“Truth” eh? A depressing article that shows how deep the rot goes. Still, at least there are organisations fighting back: Sex Matters https://sex-matters.org/ ; Standing For Women https://www.standingforwomen.com/ ; Fair Play for Women https://fairplayforwomen.com/
Would J K Rowling have faced no criticism if she had opened a refuge for abused cervic-havers rather than women? I suspect not. Give a dog a bad name and whatever it does thereafter is regarded as wicked..
I also worry about health research as trans male to female people will have a different trajectory to women and will skew the statistics about everything from heart attacks, cervical cancer and menopause. Their experiences won’t be like women and I worry that will skew the treatment we need.
Once a society relinquishes its common understanding of the meaning of basic words in its language, does it meet the definition of a society anymore?
But society has not done this. Society is us, meaning does not come from definitions in a book, we make it. The common understanding is known by the commons. Books might try and follow this, but they are always playing catch up. If you know what you are saying and the people to whom you say it know, that is its meaning, the dictionary’s is not.
No doubt doctors now say something along these lines: “ Provisionally I assign this baby to the female sex but, of course, in due course he, she or they will determine their own sex so make sure you don’t paint their room pink or anything girly in case my assignment based on superficial sex characteristics turns out to be wrong”.
You forgot the first word in that sentence. It should be Congratulations!
THEY have gone completely MAD…whatever sex/gender THEY are or believe themselves to be!
The definition of man has also been treated to this ‘identifies as’ nonsense, it’s not just women, but women will be more negatively impacted than men by this.
Its a beautiful thing, the destruction of words
War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength
Transwomen are women
Surely ‘weakness’ should replace ‘ignorance’ here. There’s absolutely no need for ignorance to get a bad press. It’s curable very easily.
By the way a tweet from Jeremy Corbyn a day or so ago associated the words ‘struggle’, ‘strength’ and ‘joy’ relating (positively) to ‘trans people’.
I thought of suggesting ‘Kampf, Kraft und Freude!’ as a handy slogan to attract Germans with the leaning, but then realised that certain historical resonances had started to obtrude themselves.
Some people are arguing that because a dictionary’s task is descriptive (of how the language is actually used) and not prescriptive (of how it should be), the Cambridge’s recent amendment is in order. The case for this could be better made if the alternative definition had been eg “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have had a different sex at birth”. But the definition actually given is “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth” which clearly insinuates – but without actually saying – that there is no fact of the matter about birth sex at all, but only (possibly contested) linguistic utterances. The aim is clear: to collapse the distinction between gender identity (“woman”) and biological sex (“female”) so that the latter cannot even be talked about. Thus Kellie-Jay Keen’s celebrated poster and T-shirt giving the OED definition of woman as “adult human female” would no longer be telling truth to woke power, as the very meanings of the words used would have shifted under her feet.
Further I note that an extra definition has also been added to the verb to identify: namely “to feel and say that you belong to a particular group of people“. Putting all this together, a woman in the new sense is “an adult who lives as, feels and says that they are a woman¨. The real problem with the definition now becomes evident. If the “woman” in the definiens refers only to the new definition, then the definition is circular, and so fails to define anything at all. It can only be saved from being circular if “woman” in the definiens refers to woman in the original sense of the term; but in that case a “woman” in the new sense is an adult who says they are a woman in the old sense. But if the adult in question is not already a woman in the old sense, this means that a woman in the new sense is somebody who is either lying or mistaken about being a woman; or, more generously, someone who is simply pretending. Which, come to think of it, is about right.
Activists have learnt that manipulating the language is a very useful psychological tool to drive their agendas and nearly always picked up and spread by MSM journalists and politicians. We see more and more examples.
Mild criticism of some tenets of a religion may be “blasphemy”, “racism” or “islamophobia”. “A sceptic of climate catastrophism is a “climate denier”. Transparent, odourless life-giving CO2 gas is “carbon”. Oceans imperceptibly less alkaline & always to stay alkaline are “acidifying”. The warming effect of 0.04% of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere is called a “greenhouse” (and the mild warming is a “climate emergency”). All problems are now “crises”. Right of centre politics is “far-right” or “fascist”
The dictionary uses the same formula to define “man”
The Cambridge Dictionary similarly redefines “man”. We shouldn’t be thinking that this is just an attack on women.
I have no doubt that this Cambridge ‘definition’ is utterly mad. However, as a philosopher, I agree with Wittgenstein’s view that the meaning of a word can be found by examining how it is used. In that sense it is not the task of a dictionary to reflect the scientific definition (which I have no doubt is correct – adult human female). The plain fact is that the Cambridge dictionary does accurately reflect the current usage, though perhaps it should make clear that the new trans usage that it adds is very much a minority. It is not the fault of the dictionary compiler if a portion of English language users have taken leave of their senses!
It reflects some people’s usage, hence the importance of a definition
Real women should simply invent a new word to describe themselves – along with all the necessary pronouns etc. Something beautiful from the classics perhaps.
That wouldn’t solve anything because five minutes later the new word would likewise be claimed and diluted.
It’s not about the word “woman”, it’s about the idea that women can’t have words that define them as a completely separate biological class which excludes males who believe they’re women.
‘Real women’ should do no such thing. The word is unequivocally theirs. The onus is on the interloper to devise the neologism. As indeed they have, with their various newly minted gender identities, pronouns etc.
Question:. Do Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Putin, Miguel Diaz-Canel, Ebrahim Raisi and Maduro consult the Cambridge dictionary regarding the definition of the word woman?
Are these heads of their respective countries identifying their pronouns and filling the heads of their young children with confusing thoughts regarding biological reality?
Don’t be disappointed, Naomi – she can always become a boy if she wants!
The definition for man has also been added to in the same way as the definition of woman. Women I think are potentially harmed more than men due to this nonsense, but I haven’t heard or seen any comments referring to the man definition, it does go both ways, this is pasted from the dictionary
an adult who lives and identifies as male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth:
Mark is a trans man (= a man who was said to be female when they were born).
Their doctor encouraged them to live as a man for a while before undergoing surgical transition.
I wonder if the definition for girl and boy has been changed too…. I can barely summon the strength to check myself.
This kind of redefinition of language is utterly dehumanising and deeply misogynistic. They call us “chestfeeders”, “people with a cervix”, “people who bleed” and so forth.
Why don’t they just call us bloody c*nts and be done with it?
Why is there such a sense of panic coming from the hard-liners on both sides of this issue? I understand that there is real excess and overreach on the extreme trans-rights side of things and believe that biological men should be identified as such with respect to women’s prisons, bathrooms, and sports, for example. But while there are a few egregious examples of crossing these actual lines in important ways–such as intact males cleaning up in women’s sports or (maybe) lurking in women’s bathrooms– most of them are trivial or imaginary.
Do we need to go into outraged meltdown mode over each disagreeable instance? Dictionaries record usage, and gender-marked definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ have gained significant currency. But I don’t think the actual difference between male and female is in great danger of being erased altogether (neutered?) by a lexicographical addition–though it certainly has been blurred before this editorial choice and I think that societal ship has sailed.
Who thinks a tomboy is a male, a sissy a female, or even a drag queen (originally ‘quean’) a biological woman? Why react to extremists that are not representative of any norm and not presenting any great threat (in my estimation)? Bad usage can be called out, but an unabridged dictionary is not at fault for recording that, for example, many use ‘literally’ to mean its antonym. I expect this to be an unpopular view here but I think the outrage and worry on this front should be more selectively indulged. Let’s not get our knickers, jock-straps, or chastity belts bunched up so easily.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. But it seems a little harsh on the lexicographers, their job is to not to decide, but to describe (English is a bottom up language, it belongs to it’s speakers wether they be English, Scots, Americans, Africans, Indians or Asian etc., unlike many other languages especially of the romance persuasion) it is society that has taken this road, and for society to correct it, and I hope your article will aid that correction. The lexicographers will then do their job, again.
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