Is It Time to Change the Definition of “Woman”?

How dictionaries are keeping track of the fraught, fast-evolving conversation around the language of gender.

Should dictionaries make room in their definitions for transgender and intersex women?

Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Devonyu/iStock.

The Collins English Dictionary defines the word “woman” as “an adult female human being.” But this past August, a tempest began on Twitter when a user posted two responses written to people who had contacted the dictionary: one to advocate that the entry should be changed, and the other to argue that it should stay the same. The first letter writer, identified in the Twitter post as a man, received a long response that said Collins is “currently reviewing all our gender-related vocabulary to make sure that we accurately reflect the evolution in the vocabulary of gender and sexuality.” The other letter writer, a woman, received a polite but curt response informing her, “[A]ny changes we make to our definitions are the result of a detailed review process and evidence-based linguistic research.”

The ensuing thread—in which one incensed respondent called for a boycott of HarperCollins’ products, the second letter writer piped up to say that she is, in fact, a transgender woman, and feminists of various stripes debated miscellaneous accusations of dictionary sexism—is less interesting than the question that inspired both commenters in the first place: Is it time for dictionaries to make room in their definitions for transgender and intersex women who may not fit under the umbrella of “adult female human being,” especially given that Collins’ primary definition for “female” in its American dictionary is “of the sex that produces ova and bears offspring”? In other words, exactly how well are dictionaries keeping up with the evolving contemporary conversation around the language of gender and sexuality?

To decide when to update their definitions, lexicographers at Collins and elsewhere will rely on data drawn from books and periodicals that show how language is used in the world. Laypeople tend to see dictionaries as prescriptive arbiters of words’ true meanings. Lexicographers, on the other hand, say their function is descriptive; they seek only to reflect the language that we, the people, have made. This means, on the one hand, that a definition would never be jettisoned simply because readers find it offensive: As Oxford linguist Deborah Cameron wrote a few days after the melee on Twitter, Collins’ entry for woman includes “some secondary senses of ‘woman’ (e.g. ‘domestic servant’; ‘wife, mistress or girlfriend’) and some idioms containing the word (e.g. ‘little woman’, ‘woman of the streets’) which feminists might well find objectionable. But their inclusion is not a mark of the lexicographers’ sexism; it’s a reflection of the sexism of the community whose usage they’re describing.” (Collins’ own lexicographers declined to be interviewed.)

Likewise, no lexicographer would be swayed by the argument that a new usage or word, once an active part of the lexicon, should be barred from the dictionary because it undercuts some other meaning that is deemed more authoritative or “real.” From this perspective, people seeking to reroute a politically charged usage should worry about how a word is transmitted in writing and taught in homes and schools—not about how it appears in the dictionary. As Cameron argues: “It’s no good petitioning the King. […] The struggle for meaning is a grassroots campaign.”

Still, it’s impossible to keep politics out of the dictionary. Last year, Merriam-Webster provoked jubilation in some corners and fury in others when it added a list of words that included “transphobia,” “nonbinary,” “cisgender,” and “genderqueer,” as well as the nonbinary honorific “Mx.” Years before, when lexicographers began expanding their definitions of “marriage” to include same-sex unions, conservatives accused them of joining the culture wars while liberals argued that they were continuing to discriminate by defining same-sex marriage as a separate, secondary sense of the word.

These arguments aren’t empty bluster, according to linguist and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer. As shared records of language, dictionaries do have legitimate social power. And it’s not like Scrabble players are the only ones who turn to them for help—judges have been known to consult them as well. In a 2007 opinion, the Rhode Island Supreme Court, for example, quoted from a dictionary that defined marriage as the union of “one man and one woman.”

The definitions of “male” and “female” have already influenced legal precedent. In 2002, the Kansas Supreme Court voided the marriage of a transgender woman and her late husband, arguing, “The words ‘sex,’ ‘male,’ and ‘female’ in everyday understanding do not encompass transsexuals.” Therefore, the court classified the bereaved wife as a man who had married her husband in defiance of Kansas law, which prohibited same-sex marriage at the time. The court barred the widow from inheriting her husband’s estate. The following year, a court in Ohio cited this case when denying a marriage application on the basis that the man in the couple was trans.

Now, same-sex marriage is legal—and some dictionaries have revised their definitions of marriage yet again, making the primary sense gender-neutral, as in Merriam-Webster’s first entry: “the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law” (which acknowledges the continuing controversy in a usage note). But the entries on “man,” “woman,” “male,” and “female” haven’t budged. Lexicography has a history of small-c conservatism where gender and sexuality are concerned; in one egregious example, the word “lesbian” didn’t make it into the Oxford English Dictionary for over a century after it entered common usage. A more reasonable lag-time, however, can be a boon. “Our goal is to catalog the language when it becomes kind of stable—to define things when the dust has settled,” says Merriam-Webster lexicographer Emily Brewster.* “That, I think, is the best that a dictionary can do. Otherwise, it’s subject to so much information that it really can’t be helpful.”

Brewster reviewed all of Webster’s sex and gender definitions when she was working on the additions of “cisgender,” “genderqueer,” and other related terms. For the time being, one of the dictionary’s science editors decided to let “man” and “woman” stand.* Webster’s primary definition for “man” reads, “an individual human; especially: an adult male human,” while a “male” is defined as “an individual of the sex that is typically capable of producing small, usually motile gametes (such as sperm or spermatozoa) which fertilize the eggs of a female.” In Brewster’s view, “That word ‘typically’ creates a broadness that allows for differently abled bodies to be male.” But she expects to revisit the question soon. “It may become clear that we need to have additional senses to address uses of the words that are not quite covered,” she said. “We wouldn’t be lexicographers if we didn’t leave that door open.”

*Correction, Sept. 30, 2017: This article originally misidentified Merriam-Webster lexicographer Emily Brewster as Megan Lunghi. It also misidentified who at Merriam-Webster allowed the definitions of “man” and “woman” to stand. It was one of the dictionary’s science editors, not Brewster. (Return.)