Troubles with the Dictionary Part 2: Defining Masculine and Feminine

There’s still part b of definition 5, which is as follows:

Okay, so the OED really is prescribing masculinity as “powerful,” “strong,” and “vigorous.” I can’t wait to see how they define “feminine.” Let’s check it out!

So far, so good. It is mirroring the definition of “masculine” just fine, as it should because they are opposites.

First, I thought you weren’t supposed to use the word in the definition, OED. I learned that in second grade. Also, here’s where things get a little shady. In the corresponding definition of “masculine,” objects are deemed “masculine” if they have certain attributes – specifically “strength” or “activity.” Why are no specific attributes listed as “feminine?” Well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’ll tell us later.

Nope, no specific attributes here either.

There’s that idea of what’s proper again. But remember how in the definition of “masculine,” the OED offered some examples of what is proper – qualities like being “vigorous” and “powerful” if you are a man?Those sorts of examples are absent here. The OED doesn’t even try to suggest what qualities would be deemed proper for a woman. And do you know why I think that is? Because if the OED defined “feminine” by using the opposite of their definition for “masculine,” they would have to employ words like “feeble” and “weak” (the opposites of “vigorous” and “powerful,” respectively), and they would be accused of outright sexism.

But the thing is, if you define “masculine” as “strong” and “powerful,” what’s left for “feminine?” The OED doesn’t come right out and say that “feminine” means weak, but they don’t have to. It’s already implied.

Oh and also there’s this little gem:

SUCH AS A WOMAN IS CAPABLE OF?? Tell me if I’m being too cynical, but does that not have some seriously negative connotations? (And that little “Obs.” does stand for obsolete, to be sure, but if it were really that obsolete, the definition wouldn’t have even been included. Now back to anger.) SUCH AS A WOMAN IS CAPABLE OF???? There are only a few things I can think of that a woman is uniquely capable of doing, and they all have to do with possessing a uterus. It works the other way too – I can only think of a couple of things that a woman is incapable of doing because she is a woman, and they are similarly biological. But something tells me that these abilities aren’t what the OED is referring to. No, I think “such as a woman is capable of” (when read in conjunction with the other definitions of “feminine” and “masculine”) implies that there are things women are capable of, but they will never match up to what a man can do. After all, he is “strong” and “powerful.”

In closing, I’d like to offer you the final definition of “feminine” which is:

There you have it, folks. “Feminine” can be used as a derogatory term (which anyone who has been told they “throw like a girl” can tell you). And there are two synonyms offered, too! Must be a popular put-down. (And I have no idea what that question mark is doing in there, unless the OED is as shocked and confused as I am about all this stuff.)

Sexism is real, and it hasn’t gone away. It’s still coded into the “definitive record of the English language,” as the Oxford English Dictionary claims itself to be. And this is what femme on a mission is fighting against.

Stay tuned for part three of Troubles with the Dictionary – I’m tackling “effeminate” next. Look out, OED. I’m coming for you!

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3 Comments on “Troubles with the Dictionary Part 2: Defining Masculine and Feminine”

  1. April 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    I think you already know where I stand on this, but I’ll reiterate. The current definitions of masculinity and femininity are obsolete. Gender roles as were once defined no longer exist. Any kind of formal or scientific definition regarding masculinity or femininity are completely irrelevant to me. It’s obvious that gender is fluid and we make our own roles. Screw the dictionary.

  2. emmamulligan
    April 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    Hahaha Simone de Beauvoir had it right … “you know, like, not male.” And to think, this is what I’m supposed to refer to when writing my college papers?

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